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A group of seal-hunt protesters were acquitted yesterday of violating a 10-metre buffer zone surrounding sealing boats in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, narrowly avoiding a heavy fine and a probable ban on undertaking similar protests in future.

Judge Jean-Paul Décoste said the evidence - eyewitness testimony from fisheries officer Jean-François Sylvestre - left him unconvinced that the defendants had intruded within the 10-metre limit.

"Let us agree on this," Judge Décoste said. "It is extremely difficult, on the seas or on a frozen area in the Gulf, to figure out the distance. There are few or no reference points on which to rely."

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Defence counsel Clayton Ruby praised Judge Décoste in an interview for rising above the fact that the trial took place in the heart of seal-hunting country, where, the lawyer said, protesters are almost always convicted and no sealer ever gets convicted of an offence.

"You worry about the effect of local values on a trial," Mr. Ruby said. "This judge had the courage to say 'no, it's not a good enough case.' "

The incident took place on March 27, 2006, amid a seal hunt highlighted by well-publicized protests by musician Paul McCartney and retired French actress Brigitte Bardot.

Mr. Ruby's clients included two Canadians, Rebecca Aldworth and Andrew Plumbly. Two U.S. citizens, Chad Sisneros and Pierre Grzybowski, were also charged, along with a British citizen, Mark Glover.

All five are members of either the Humane Society of the United States or the Humane Society International.

"This prosecution was about keeping horrific photographic images of the killing of baby seals off European front pages," Mr. Ruby said yesterday. "The Ministry of Fisheries and Oceans, who waited four months before laying this charge, wants only one thing - no more photographs."

A conviction "would certainly have been followed by refusal of observation permits by the Minister of Fisheries," Mr. Ruby said.

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Mr. Sylvestre was the only Crown witness to testify that two Zodiac boats approached the fishing boat several times while hunters were dragging dead seals toward it. "I wonder why so many of the witnesses the prosecution has at its disposal were not present before the court," Judge Décoste remarked yesterday.

There were frequent clashes between sealers and protesters on the ice floes during the 2006 hunt. The protesters insist that the hunt cruelly targets only extremely young seals, which are unable to escape or even swim. The charge of violating their observation licences carried a maximum fine of $100,000 under the Marine Mammal Regulations.

Mr. Ruby used a series of four videotapes at the trial, each filmed simultaneously from a different perspective, to show that his clients never even came close to violating the buffer zone.

He noted yesterday that federal prosecutor Denis Lavoie dropped a charge of obstructing the hunt prior to the trial.

"I respected the man intensely," Mr. Ruby said. "The system doesn't always work, and the role of defence counsel is to make it work. But congratulations all around - except to the minister."

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