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BISMARCK, N.D. (AP) — The government is asking a federal judge to reject a request for evidence to be returned to a New York City woman who suffered a serious arm injury in an explosion while protesting the Dakota Access oil pipeline in North Dakota.

Prosecutors contend authorities properly obtained the shrapnel and clothing from Sophia Wilansky while she was hospitalized in Minnesota following her November 2016 injury. They also said the evidence could be key to a criminal investigation into a violent clash between demonstrators and police that’s become the emblematic skirmish of the protest.

The $3.8 billion pipeline began carrying North Dakota oil to Illinois last June, though American Indian tribes who fear environmental harm are still fighting in court. On-the-ground demonstrations in 2016 and 2017 resulted in 761 arrests in a six-month span.

Wilansky was hurt in a clash that began when protesters tried to push past a blocked highway bridge near their main encampment but were turned back by authorities using tear gas, rubber bullets and water sprays. Police said protesters threw objects including rocks, asphalt and water bottles.

Authorities maintain the explosion that injured Wilansky was caused by a propane canister that demonstrators rigged to explode. Protesters contend the blast was caused by a concussion grenade thrown by officers.

Wilansky, who has undergone several surgeries, sued the FBI and other federal agencies in February in U.S. District Court in Minnesota, seeking the return of the evidence or the opportunity to have the items analyzed by a forensic scientist she hired. She hopes it will bolster a civil rights lawsuit she plans to file against law enforcement seeking money damages.

In his response filed with the court, Assistant U.S. Attorney Craig Baune said the seizures were legally done and the items are evidence in a grand jury investigation into the altercation.

“Allowing one person’s expert to access and manipulate physical evidence could be problematic if others are charged because those other potential defendants could assert that the evidence was contaminated or otherwise compromised,” Baune wrote.

U.S. District Judge Wilhelmina Wright scheduled a May 24 hearing on the evidence dispute. Meanwhile, U.S. Magistrate Judge Tony Leung is allowing North Dakota’s Morton County, where the protests occurred, to intervene because it might have a stake in the outcome.

Morton County is among the defendants in a class-action lawsuit filed by pipeline opponents who are seeking money damages for alleged police brutality and civil rights violations in the November 2016 confrontation.

The case was delayed most of last year while the group unsuccessfully appealed Judge Daniel Hovland’s refusal to bar police from using tactics such as chemical agents and water sprays.

With the appeal resolved, Hovland in January ruled the case could move forward. The defendants renewed their claims in late February, and the defendants earlier this month renewed their request that the case to be dismissed.


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