ACLU Rebukes U.S. Government for Denying South African Scholar's Visa

November 14, 2007

Group Renews Legal Challenge, Says U.S. Unfairly Maligning Distinguished Professor

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CONTACT: (212) 519-7829 or 549-2666; media@aclu.org

BOSTON -- In response to the unjustified denial of a visa to renowned South African scholar Adam Habib, the American Civil Liberties Union and the ACLU of Massachusetts today renewed their legal challenge against the Departments of State and Homeland Security. The State Department refused Habib a visa after months of inaction, claiming that he is barred because he has "engaged in terrorist activities," but the government failed to explain the basis for its accusation, let alone provide any evidence to prove it. The ACLU, in today's legal complaint, is now demanding that the government substantiate its ban on Habib or grant him a visa.

"In one fell swoop, the U.S. government has stifled political debate in this country and maligned the reputation of a respected scholar without giving one shred of evidence to support its claims," said Melissa Goodman, a staff attorney with the ACLU's National Security Project. "It appears that Professor Habib is being excluded not because of his actions but because of his political views and associations."

Today's legal challenge amends a lawsuit, filed in September in the U.S. District Court for the District of Massachusetts, charging that the government's exclusion of Professor Habib amounts to censorship at the border because it prevents U.S. citizens and residents from hearing speech that is protected by the First Amendment. The ACLU went to court on behalf of organizations that have invited Professor Habib to speak in the U.S., including the American Sociological Association (ASA), the American Association of University Professors (AAUP), the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee (ADC) and the Boston Coalition for Palestinian Rights (BCPR). The lawsuit asks the court to prevent the government from excluding Professor Habib unless it comes forward with evidence to substantiate its accusations.

Habib is a renowned scholar, sought after political analyst, and Deputy Vice-Chancellor of Research, Innovation and Advancement at the University of Johannesburg. He is also a Muslim who has been a vocal critic of the war in Iraq and certain U.S. terrorism-related policies. Habib has repeatedly condemned terrorism but urged governments to respond to the terror threat with policies that are consistent with human rights norms and the rule of law. Until the government suddenly revoked his visa in October 2006 without explanation, he never experienced any trouble entering the U.S.; in fact, Habib lived in New York with his family for years while earning a Ph.D. in Political Science from the City University of New York.

The October 2006 revocation of Professor Habib's visa prevented him from attending a series of meetings with representatives from the National Institutes for Health, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the World Bank, Columbia University and the Gates Foundation. When he landed in New York, Habib was detained for seven hours and interrogated about his associations and political views. Armed guards eventually escorted him to a plane and deported him back to South Africa. The State Department later revoked the visas of Professor Habib's wife and two small children, again, without explanation.

"As someone who studies democracies around the world, it is deeply upsetting that the U.S. government refuses to allow me to cross its borders because of my political views. While I have criticized U.S. foreign policy as a political commentator, it is utterly absurd that anyone would associate me with terrorism," said Habib. "Although the harm the government's inexplicable 'terrorism' label has caused my family and reputation is very real, this is not just about me — it is about protecting the free exchange of ideas that America is supposed to be about."

Last May, Habib applied for a new visa that would allow him to travel to the U.S. to attend speaking engagements. The government's failure to process Professor Habib's visa in time for him to attend the annual meeting of the American Sociological Association in August 2007, and the fact that the application continued to languish after Professor Habib received numerous new U.S. invitations, prompted the filing of the lawsuit.

Professor Habib's exclusion is part of a larger pattern. Over the past few years, numerous foreign scholars, human rights activists, and writers — all vocal critics of U.S. policy — have been barred from the U.S. without explanation or on vague national security grounds. In 2006, the ACLU filed a similar lawsuit on behalf of U.S. academic groups and Professor Tariq Ramadan, a widely respected Swiss scholar of the Muslim world. When the government revoked his visa in 2004, Professor Ramadan was prevented from assuming a tenured teaching position at the University of Notre Dame. The Ramadan lawsuit challenges the legality of his exclusion and the constitutionality of the Patriot Act provision under which he was initially excluded. He remains excluded from the U.S. to this day.

The ACLU recently launched a new interactive web feature that tells the stories of the artists, scholars and politicians the U.S. government has kept out of the country since the inception of ideological exclusion in 1952. It is available at: www.aclu.org/passportflash

More information about ideological exclusion — including a podcast with Adam Habib, plaintiff statements in support of Habib, and the legal complaint in today's case — is available at: www.aclu.org/exclusion

Attorneys in the case are Goodman, Jameel Jaffer, Nasrina Bargzie, and Judy Rabinovitz of the ACLU, and Sarah Wunsch and John Reinstein of the ACLU of Massachusetts.

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