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Activist pleads guilty in Oregon to decades old federal arson charges

A MARTINEZ, HOST:

A decade ago, federal property in Oregon was set on fire in protest. Yesterday, an environmental and animal rights activist pleaded guilty to those charges after years on the run. Here's Conrad Wilson with Oregon Public Broadcasting.

CONRAD WILSON, BYLINE: Federal prosecutors say Joseph Mahmoud Dibee was a member of the Earth Liberation Front and Animal Liberation Front. The U.S. Department of Justice has held those groups responsible for what it describes as acts of domestic terrorism. Prosecutors say Dibee was part of a group known as The Family, which caused more than $45 million in damages in a series of arsons between 1995 and 2001.

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SCOTT ASPHAUG: No matter the agenda, using violence to advance a social or political cause is a serious crime.

WILSON: Scott Asphaug is Oregon's U.S. attorney. In a recorded statement, he said that Dibee and others damaged government properties and private businesses. Those businesses were targeted because the group thought that they harmed animals or contributed to habitat destruction. Just before he was indicted in 2006, Dibee fled the country, first to Syria, where he had family, and later to Russia. He spent more than a decade as an international fugitive. He worked on large-scale environmental projects, like a biofuels facility and a desalination plant. Dibee was detained by Cuban authorities in August 2018 and arrested by the FBI. At the time, the Justice Department called Dibee, quote, "a domestic terrorism suspect." That description wasn't used yesterday when Dibee entered his guilty plea - again, Asphaug.

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ASPHAUG: After many years on the run, Mr. Dibee admitted to his role in these schemes and will finally face justice.

WILSON: The government called Dibee an extremist and an arsonist, but they did not use the word terrorist. Dibee pleaded guilty to several arson-related charges in California and Oregon. He admitted in California he assisted others who burned a barn at a Bureau of Land Management wild horse facility in 2001. He also admitted to starting a fire in Oregon that destroyed a slaughterhouse in 1997. It was called Cavel West and processed and sold horsemeat to Europe. Matt Schindler is Dibee's attorney.

MATT SCHINDLER: Mr. Dibee was involved with the arson at Cavel West. And so it was important that he take responsibility for that.

WILSON: A federal judge will sentence Dibee in July. The government has recommended more than seven years in prison. Dibee is expected to ask for a lighter sentence.

For NPR News, I'm Conrad Wilson in Portland.

(SOUNDBITE OF HAKAISU'S "CONNECTION") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.