Ten radical environmental activists have been sentenced over the past few weeks for a string of arsons committed in the late 1990s and early 2000s. The group, extremists claiming to be members of the Earth Liberation Front and Animal Liberation Front, targeted scientists and sites involved in activities such as logging and the culling of wild horses. As Nature went to press, most of the sentences had been handed out, and they ranged from 3 to 13 years.

Remains of the day: arsonists destroyed many years' work. Credit: J. DEARING/BUREAU OF LAND MANAGEMENT/AP

Lauren Regan, a lawyer working with the convicted arsonists, says the sentences are “not surprising and within the realm of reasonable”, but that 'terrorism enhancements' added to many sentences will make their treatment in jail much more harsh and will label them for the rest of their lives.

The judge in the case, Ann Aiken, ruled that crimes carried out with “intent or desire to influence, affect, or retaliate against government conduct” were eligible for these enhancements. She made it clear, though, that she was ruling only on the narrow legal question of whether the crimes fit the legal criteria for the enhancement, and not on the broader, more controversial question of whether the people involved should be labelled as terrorists.

One of the biggest fires, and perhaps the most memorable to the scientific community, was the torching of a building in the Center for Urban Horticulture at the University of Washington in Seattle on 21 May 2001. The fire targeted the work of Toby Bradshaw, whom the group thought was genetically engineering poplar trees. “I am delighted that the perpetrators have been caught,” says Bradshaw, “and satisfied that the criminal-justice system is capable of determining an appropriate punishment.”

Group members were also found responsible for torching a lab of the US Department of Agriculture's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) in Olympia, Washington, on 21 June 1998. Lab worker Dale Nolte, who now works on avian flu for the service, says that he hasn't followed the trial and has no opinion on the sentencings. “My focus from the beginning was to recover our facilities, to keep up the morale of our scientists and keep the work going,” he says. One of this group was sentenced to more than 12 years in prison, which included a terrorism enhancement.

The sentencing memo depicts a group of ideological activists who were not always successful at crime. Their cars broke down, accomplices dropped out at the last minute, members of the group were busted for shoplifting and time and again their incendiary devices failed to go off. Yet, according to federal prosecutors, they racked up more than US$40 million in damages between 1995 and 2001. No one was harmed during the group's actions, although many contend that this was more through luck than careful planning.