BISMARCK, N.D. (AP) — Government officials say the five-month shutdown of a North Dakota highway during protests against the Dakota Access oil pipeline was not aimed at manipulating the media or the American Indian tribe that has led the protracted fight against the project.
Authorities had justifiable cause for closing the stretch of state Highway 1806 that included limiting disruptions to a project deemed by President Donald Trump to be in the national interest, attorneys for Morton County and state officials, including former Gov. Jack Dalrymple, argued in recent court filings in a lawsuit over the shutdown.
State Deputy Solicitor General James Nicolai said people he called violent criminals "had infiltrated the protest and turned it from a peaceful protest into a criminal riot."
Their argument comes in response to a lawsuit by Standing Rock Sioux tribal members and others who say the closure was aimed not only at protesters but also at influencing the tribe's position and the media coverage.
The protest in 2016 and 2017 resulted in 761 arrests in six months, most of them near protest camps between the pipeline construction route and the reservation. Two of the camps, including one that morphed into a small city with at times thousands of people, were bordered on another side by the highway.
State officials blocked off a stretch of the highway in October 2016 after fires were set on a bridge and didn't reopen it until March 2017, after repairs and the shutdown of the camps . The $3.8 billion pipeline began moving North Dakota oil to Illinois three months later.
A reservation businesswoman, two pipeline opponents and a reservation church priest sued last October over the highway shutdown, seeking unspecified monetary damages from Morton County, its sheriff, several state officials and a company that oversaw private security for Texas-based pipeline developer Energy Transfer Partners.
The plaintiffs say the highway closure unduly restricted travel and commerce and violated free speech and religious rights. An amended complaint filed earlier this month broadened the claims, alleging the shutdown aimed to extort concessions from the tribe, such as a public decree to vacate the camps, and to manipulate the media by making reporters more reliant on government reports of what was happening.
Nicolai and county attorney Shawn Grinolds dispute that.
"The trespasses, destruction of private property, and vandalism were real, not false perceptions created by an impliedly gullible local media," Nicolai said.
The defense attorneys also rejected the claim that the highway shutdown was aimed at disrupting commerce for the tribe and its popular casino.
"The constitutional rights and alleged injuries of (plaintiffs) are the issues before the court, not any alleged political negotiations between two sovereigns, one of whom (the tribe) is not a party to the lawsuit," Nicolai said.
He and Grinolds are seeking to have the lawsuit dismissed . Plaintiffs' attorney Noah Smith-Drelich in a statement responded that "clearly the defendants are appealing to the court of public opinion, rather than addressing the law."
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