Anti-telescope protesters oppose US attorney pick for Hawaii

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HONOLULU (AP) — Some Native Hawaiians are objecting to President Joe Biden’s choice for U.S. attorney in the 50th state, saying Clare Connors treated dozens of elders like criminals when her office prosecuted them for blocking a road while protesting the construction of a telescope in Hawaii.

“She has acted aggressively towards the Hawaiian people during all of our stand for Mauna Kea,” said Kealoha Pisciotta, one of the protest leaders.

Pisciotta and other Native Hawaiians who oppose the telescope believe the summit of Mauna Kea is sacred. They say building the Thirty Meter Telescope on the state’s tallest mountain would further desecrate a place already defiled by a dozen other observatories.

The 38 Native Hawaiian elders prosecuted for obstruction were in their 60s through 80s and many of them are community leaders. Four were found not guilty in August. One was found guilty last month after a separate trial, fined $500 and sentenced to one day in jail, which he won't have to serve if he avoids further violations for the next six months. The other cases are pending.

Pisciotta said she's concerned about Connors being named U.S. attorney because Native Hawaiians have been deprived of their land and their right to self-determination since the U.S.-backed overthrow of the Hawaiian monarchy in 1893.

“I think of her as a danger to many situations in Hawaii because she doesn’t have to seem to have the compassion or the aloha that is needed considering our political situation,” Pisciotta said.

Connors, Hawaii’s state attorney general since 2019, said she is honored by the nomination but declined to comment further on the pending confirmation process.

However, Gary Yamashiroya, a spokesperson for Connors, said prosecutions of the protesters arose “from a deliberate effort to block access to Mauna Kea for the purpose of preventing lawful construction of a project permitted by the Hawaii Supreme Court.”

"Blocking a public road is a crime, and the Department of the Attorney General will prosecute such conduct consistent with its duty to uphold the rule of law,” Yamashiroya said.

U.S. Sens. Mazie Hirono and Brian Schatz of Hawaii, both Democrats, recommended Connors to Biden. Spokespeople for both senators declined comment on the Native Hawaiian opposition to Connors' nomination, referring to a joint statement that they issued when the appointment was announced on Sept. 28.

That statement said she was exceptionally well-qualified and that they were confident she would serve the people of Hawaii well.

Gov. David Ige, a Democrat, and multiple prior U.S. attorneys for Hawaii have also praised her nomination, as have attorneys Connors worked with in private practice.

U.S. attorneys are the chief federal law enforcement officers in their districts.

The Thirty Meter Telescope would be one of the world’s largest optical telescopes. The $2.4 billion observatory is being planned by universities in California and Canada with participation from the governments of China, India and Japan.

The Thirty Meter Telescope International Observatory planned to begin construction in 2019, a year after the Hawaii Supreme Court ruled the project had a valid permit.

But protesters, who identify themselves as “kia'i,” or protectors of the mountain, began camping out on and near the lone road to the Mauna Kea's summit in July 2019.

Demonstrators remained even after the arrests of the elders, with their numbers at times reaching into the thousands.

By December 2019, the Thirty Meter Telescope consortium said it wasn't prepared to go ahead with construction because the state and Hawaii County hadn't shown they could provide “safe, sustained access” to Mauna Kea. TMT said it didn't want to put its workers, the people of Hawaii and protesters at risk. A small group of protesters remained until March 2020, when they left amid coronavirus concerns and confidence TMT wasn't going to build immediately.

The observatory has selected a site in Spain's Canary Islands as a backup site if it's not able to build in Hawaii. But the nonprofit organization has said it still prefers Mauna Kea, where the weather is among the world's best for viewing the skies.

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Associated Press writer Jennifer Sinco Kelleher contributed to this report.

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