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First civil trial over 2004 GOP convention arrests begins in NY City

By Joseph Ax

NEW YORK (Reuters) - Lawyers for four men wrongfully arrested at a protest during the 2004 Republican National Convention urged a jury on Monday to award significant damages, in the first case to reach trial after a decade of civil litigation over the mass arrests.

"You should punish them severely," Priya Chaudhry said at the start of the trial in Manhattan federal court.

But lawyers for the two police officers who ordered the arrests said they had taken what they believed to be appropriate action.

"The defendants believed that all of the people had broken the law," city attorney Michael Gertzer said. "Where is the evidence of evil intent?"

The city agreed in January to pay nearly $18 million to settle civil rights claims brought by more than 1,600 people who said they were illegally arrested and detained while protesting the convention. It did not admit wrongdoing as part of the settlement.

Many of those arrested said they were held in squalid conditions at a Hudson River pier, some for as many as 40 hours. The protesters accused police of using mesh nets to round up people indiscriminately, including journalists and bystanders.

Monday’s trial is over claims from four men who refused to partake in the settlement. Steven Ekberg, Howard Gale and Robert Siegel were protesters, while Andrew St. Laurent was an attorney who served as a legal observer during the march on Aug. 31, 2004.

Police arrested 227 people at the march, including the four plaintiffs.

U.S. District Judge Richard Sullivan ruled in 2012 that those arrests, which took place on Fulton Street in downtown Manhattan, were illegal.

As a result, the trial is solely to determine how much money the city should pay the plaintiffs on behalf of the two officers – Thomas Galati, who is now the NYPD’s chief of intelligence, and Terrence Monahan, now a deputy chief in the Bronx. The four men are seeking both compensatory and punitive damages.

The city’s law department previously said it had spent about $16 million to defend the RNC-related cases. Only two other individual cases still remain pending, the law department said on Monday.

(Editing by Eric Walsh)

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