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Activists staged a demonstration at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York on 24 June to protest what they say are excessive charges pressed against Joanna Smith and Tim Martin, two members of the Declare Emergency climate group who are facing a federal indictment after splattering paint on the glass case of an Edgar Degas sculpture at the National Gallery of Art (NGA) in Washington, DC, earlier this year.

A group of 20 activists from the Extinction Rebellion and Rise & Resist groups staged a demonstration around a bronze edition of the Degas work, La Petite Danseuse de quatorze ans or Little Dancer Aged Fourteen, at the Met. The activists covered their mouths with pieces of tape featuring words like “Glaciers”, “Famine”, “Floods” and “Wildlife”, which the groups said in a statement symbolise the suppression faced by climate activists. Protestors raised their palms, which were coloured red and black to mirror Smith and Martin’s protest.

Last month, Smith and Martin were indicted on federal conspiracy charges after they were arrested for smearing paint on the glass enclosure of a wax version of the Degas sculpture at the NGA in April.

“This art is beautiful, and we’re damaging it with climate change. We need our leaders to take urgent action and tell us the truth about the climate crisis,” Smith says in video footage from the protest.

Both Smith and Martin were charged with conspiring to commit an offense against the US and causing injury to NGA property, and face up to five years in prison and fines of up to $250,000 each. Their protest caused an estimated $2,400 in damage to the NGA installation, the museum said, and the Degas sculpture itself was not harmed.

Activists say the severity of the charges reflects a recent trend of “unjustifiably harsh” consequences for climate activists, and one they suspect may be part of “a deliberate strategy of intimidation targeting such groups and their supporters”, according to an Extinction Rebellion spokesperson.

“If Joanna and Tim had been graffiti artists using fingerpaint to tag plexiglass, they wouldn’t be facing the prospect of lengthy prison sentences. Their indictment is not based on their actions, but on their motivations. It is an indictment of intimidation, rather than a pursuit of justice,” Stu Waldman, an organiser with Rise & Resist, said in a statement.

Smith and Martin’s protest was the first high-profile climate change demonstration in an American museum. Last year, climate protesters in the UK and Europe began demonstrating in museums, often glueing themselves to the frames or throwing substances onto the protective glass of famous artworks to garner publicity for their cause. No works have been damaged by the protests, but the International Council of Museums (ICOM) said in a statement that the climate change groups “severely underestimate the fragility” of the artwork.

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