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Guilt by Association

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July 25, 2008

A federal court dealt a blow today to the freedoms of speech and association, and the First and Fifth Amendment rights of Zeinab Taleb-Jedi — a 53-year-old U.S. citizen who lives in a homeless shelter. The government accuses this former English teacher of providing material support — in the form of herself — to an Iranian resistance group, the Mojahedin el-Khalq (MEK) (read the New York Times article and our press release). The government doesn’t allege that Ms. Taleb-Jedi engaged in any terrorist act or that she intended to support terrorism. Instead, according to her defense attorneys, the government’s allegations come down to Ms. Taleb-Jedi’s teaching of English and her being a member of a leadership council — activities that are protected by the First Amendment. Sadly, the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of New York agreed with the government that these associational activities could count as providing material support to a designated terrorist organization.

The ACLU had filed a friend of the court brief in Ms. Taleb-Jedi’s quest to have the case thrown out because of our long-standing position that the material support law is unconstitutional because it criminalizes guilt by association.

From a Huffington Post piece by Hina Shamsi, who wrote the ACLU’s brief:

The material support law, as applied now, allows the possibility of criminally prosecuting morally innocent people who intend to support lawful activity through humanitarian aid, speech, or association.

According to our brief, the Constitution’s guarantees of freedom of speech and association and due process require the government to show that Ms. Taleb-Jedi (and others in her position) have specific intent to provide material support. Our brief also argued that people charged with material support to a blacklisted organization must be allowed to challenge the blacklisting because it is that blacklisting which turns otherwise lawful political activity into criminal conduct… The court, unfortunately, did not uphold Ms. Taleb-Jedi’s First and Fifth Amendment rights.

Now it’s on to trial for Taleb-Jedi. This despite the fact that, according to Ms. Taleb-Jedi’s lawyers, MEK is really more an ally than an enemy to the U.S. and the U.S. government has reportedly cooperated with MEK in Iraq.

From a Nov. 9, 2003 Washington Post article:

“The problem is they’re still labeled as terrorists, even though we both know they’re not,” said [U.S.] Sgt. William Sutherland, explaining why a reporter could not enter [the MEK installation in Iraq known as] Camp Ashraf. “Much as I’d like to go and do a story myself on how they’re not terrorists—rather, they’re patriots—it’s not going to happen until they get put on the green list.” …

Ms. Taleb-Jedi is not the only person in danger of being charged under this bad law. Again, from Hina’s piece:

For example, a doctor doing humanitarian relief work in an area in which a designated terrorist organization operates could be criminally charged with material support in the form of “services” or “expert assistance.” So could an engineer who provides water purification systems or sanitation equipment or shelter.

In another challenge based on the government’s overly-broad application of the material support laws, the ACLU has asked a federal district court in Texas to clear the names of two mainstream Muslim organizations labeled by the government as “unindicted co-conspirators” in its criminal case against the Holy Land Foundation. The government accuses HLF of providing material support to Hamas. The case originally resulted in a mistrial and is scheduled for retrial in September. Government attorneys publicly identified the Islamic Society of North America (ISNA) and the North American Islamic Trust (NAIT) as co-conspirators before the HLF trial, even though, as the government itself has since admitted, neither organization was the subject of a criminal investigation.