NEW YORK (CBSNewYork/AP) – New York City has agreed to pay $18 million to settle dozens of lawsuits filed by protesters, journalists and bystanders who said they were wrongly arrested at the 2004 Republican National Convention, lawyers said Wednesday.

The settlement, which must be approved by a federal judge, would end nearly a decade of legal wrangling over more than 1,800 arrests, mostly on charges of disorderly conduct or parading without a permit. Hundreds sued, saying they were illegally arrested by an overzealous police department.

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Lawyers with the New York Civil Liberties Union had previously asked the judge hearing the class-action case to conclude that police didn’t have probable cause to make mass arrests during the convention, at which President George W. Bush was nominated for another term.

“This $18 million settlement sends a message loud and clear to the government of New York City as well as to governments all over the country, indeed the world, that protecting protests serves democracy and squelching protests does not pay,” NYCLU Executive Director Donna Lieberman told 1010 WINS.

The city argued for dismissal, arguing that nearly 800,000 people demonstrated during the convention and only a small fraction of them were arrested. The convention was watched over by as many as 10,000 officers from the 35,000-member police department, the nation’s largest. They were assigned to protect the city from terrorism threats and to cope with tens of thousands of demonstrators.

Some of the plaintiffs spoke out about their ordeal Wednesday afternoon.

“If this average person can get arrested walking down the street going for a milkshake at Wendy’s, which is what I was doing that night, and be held for 50 hours, we should all be a little afraid,” said Dierdre McNamara, who was arrested near Union Square.

“The arrest still haunts me to this day. Two years ago, I was advised to withdraw my name for consideration to cook for the First Lady Michelle Obama because I was afraid that I would be not cleared for the Secret Service’s background check,” chef Nazie Shekarchi said.

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Attorney Martin Stolar represented many of the plaintiffs.

“The defense efforts led to a shocking rate of cases being judged not worthy of even being heard in court. A bit more than 90 percent of all the arrests resulted in dismissals or acquittals, a truly shocking statistic,” he said Wednesday.

Both sides said in a joint statement that it was best to settle. The city won’t admit guilt under the agreement, which amounts to about $6,400 per plaintiff and about $7 million in attorney fees.

Celeste Koeleveld, a city attorney, said it was important to defend the case.

“We are proud of the major victories we achieved,” she said in a statement. “Among other successes, the constitutionality of key police policies used during the RNC was upheld, and an effort to restrict the NYPD’s ability to police large-scale events was rejected.”

Prior to Wednesday’s announcement, 142 other plaintiffs who sued over the arrests had settled with the city for a total of about $1.8 million, mostly in 2007.

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