US Palestinians organize as government renews threats to indict solidarity activists

The US Palestinian Community Network (USPCN) is asking supporters to sign a pledge to defend civil and human rights as it was revealed last week that the lead government prosecutor of the Holy Land Five has been assigned to the ongoing secret investigation against anti-war and international solidarity activists across the US.

USPCN is a Palestinian formation aimed at unifying Palestinians in the Shatat (exile) in support of self-determination and the right of return and ending the Zionist occupation and colonization of Palestine.

USPCN has rallied around Palestine solidarity and anti-war activists who are being targeted as part of an investigation into material support for foreign terrorist organizations. I am one of almost two dozen activists in Chicago and the Minneapolis/St.Paul areas who have been subpoenaed to a federal grand jury as part of this investigation.

The FBI and other federal agencies, in a coordinated raid in September 2010, burst into the homes of prominent organizers in the Midwest and harassed activists across the country. In the following months, subpoenas were delivered to a total of 23 activists; all of us have refused to testify, saying that we are being targeted because of our political work which is protected by the First Amendment of the US Constitution.

Veteran Chicano liberation, anti-war and immigrant rights activist Carlos Montes was also raided by the Los Angeles County Sheriff Department last May. Montes is named in one of the search warrants served in Minneapolis in September 2010, and when he was in custody the FBI questioned him about his political associations.

He was charged with trumped-up technical firearms code violations related to his participation in protests decades ago. (For more information about Montes and this attack on him, see this good backgrounder by Chris Hedges: “Carlos Montes and the Security State: A Cautionary Tale.”)

Readying for national day of action

The USPCN’s pledge in support of the activists reads:

In solidarity with the 23, we will defend our constitutional rights of freedom of speech and assembly. We will stand up to any escalation of the attacks on human rights activists.
We will join in the National Day of Protest when any of the 23 human rights activists are ordered to appear in front of the Chicago Grand Jury or indicted.

The Committee to Stop FBI Repression, which formed in the wake of the September 2010 raids, also has a petition that has already been signed by thousands of individuals. There is also a national petition in support of Carlos Montes.

Lead prosecutor of Holy Land Five now part of secret investigation

It was revealed last week that not only is the the investigation into the anti-war and solidarity activists ongoing, but Barry Jonas, the lead prosecutor of five men associated with the Holy Land Foundation, is now working on the investigation under US District Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald in Chicago.

The Holy Land Foundation for Relief and Development (HLF), once the largest Islamic charity in the US, was shut down by the Bush administration in December 2001 and indictments came down a few years later. After a first trial resulted in a hung jury that favored toward acquittal, a second trial resulted in the conviction of the five men, who were given sentences ranging from 15 to 65 years in prison.

The US government alleged that the HLF was providing material support to Hamas, a Palestinian political party on the US State Department’s designated foreign terrorist organization list. As is summarized in Alia Malek’s excellent book Patriot Acts: Narratives of Post-9/11 Injustice:

The HLF was not accused of directly financing terrorist violence, but of supplying funds to Hamas-controlled charitable societies and committees. The US government has argued that providing humanitarian aid to victims of war or natural disasters is a crime if provided to or coordinated with a group labeled as a foreign terrorist organization.

The charitable groups, known as Zakat Committees, identified in the indictment have been funded by the US and the defense denied that the committees are controled by Hamas. The Hamas party won a majority of seats in the 2006 Palestinian Legislative Council elections and the Gaza Strip has been subjected to a devastating siege of collective punishment following the Hamas government’s takeover of the territory’s internal affairs.

All of the major Palestinian political parties, except for Fatah, are on the State Department’s terrorist organization list, essentially criminalizing an entire people. Of course I don’t have to point out the hypocrisy of criminalizing Palestinian political groups while the US funds the Israeli occupation to the tune of $3 billion a year and provides Israel with diplomatic cover at the United Nations.

Charity treated as “local face of terrorism”

Holy Land Foundation co-founder Ghassan Elashi is currently serving a 65-year sentence in a Communications Management Unit — self-contained detention centers where communication is severely restricted and monitored, and which are disproportionately populated by Arabs and Muslims. He provides a revealing testimony in Patriot Acts, describing how the HLF and his family company, InfoCom, which was raided days before the 11 September 2001 attacks, became the “local faces of terrorism.” It was at one point even speculated whether the 11 September attacks were in reprisal for the raid on the company.

Elashi also describes how the government agencies who raided the HLF’s offices in December 2001 had neither a search warrant or a court order to seize its contents.

The injustices against the HLF continued during the trials. During the first trial, Elashi recounts, “the prosecutors focused on the killing of Israeli soldiers and civilians by Palestinian elements, and specifically Hamas, as opposed to the actions of the HLF or the defendants themselves.”

Elashi adds:

One government witness testified in detail about suicide bombings claimed by Hamas, and prosecutors were also allowed to present to the jury numerous images and statements made by individuals other than us. For example, they showed pictures of the aftermath of suicide bombs, and videos of Palestinian school ceremonies in which children played the roles of suicide bombers, complete with suicide belts. None of the videos came from the HLF’s files. The videos depicted events that happened years after the HLF closed, and there is no evidence that the defendants attended these ceremonies.

Yet all attempts by our attorney to show the jury fundraising videos demonstrating the HLF’s charity work were met with objections from prosecutors and the judge. The judge even deemed the evidence irrelevant.

Like in the Chicago trial of US Palestinians Muhammad Salah and Dr. Abdelhaleem Ashqar a few years back, the prosecution’s star witness in the HLF trial was an “anonymous expert who worked with the Israeli secret intelligence.” His real name was not revealed to the court and the defense attorneys were severely limited in what they were allowed to ask during cross-examination. “This is the first time in history the US court had allowed an expert witness to testify with an anonymous name,” Elashi recounts in Patriot Acts.

Elashi also recalls that after the first trial, none of the defendants were found guilty of any of the 197 counts against them. However, the prosecution had more tricks up its sleeve, as Elashi recalls:

Prosecutors then asked the judge to poll the jurors. The judge agreed, and one of the jurors changed their mind. Suddenly there was confusion in the court. Some of the marshals told us that they had never seen such a thing in their lives. The judge then ordered the jurors to go back to the deliberation room and come out with a final verdict … This time one of the jurors changed their minds … the final verdict was a hung jury on all counts for all defendants, except [Mohammad] Elmezain, who was acquitted on all counts, with a hung jury on one count. The judge then announced a mistrial. A mistrial meant of course that prosecutors decided to retry the case.

A second trial resulted in guilty verdicts on all counts and lengthy prison sentences for the five men.

Palestine solidarity construed as material support for terrorism

The injustice of the trial, convictions and sentencing of the Holy Land Foundation five gives an idea of what anti-war and international solidarity activists are in for should they be put on trial.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts’ Privacy Matters blog published a spot-on analysis last week on “International solidarity and the First Amendment in the crosshairs,” saying that government prosecutor Barry Jonas’ involvement “suggests that criminalizing support for Palestine could be at the top of the grand jury’s agenda.”

The post also states:

Since the Holy Land Foundation case was decided, prosecutors have obtained a new weapon to use against international solidarity activists like those at the receiving end of grand jury subpoenas. The Supreme Court ruling in June 2010 in the case of Holder v. the Humanitarian Law Project was the culmination of 12 years of litigation over the interpretation of the “material support to terrorism” provision of the 1996 Anti Terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act, which was expanded by the USA PATRIOT Act to include the categories of giving “expert advice or assistance,” training, service and personnel.

The case revolved around groups that were helping the PKK (Kurdistan Workers Party) develop non violent ways of getting its message across and an organization that maintained that the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Ealam (LTTE) should be the recipient of aid for northern Sri Lanka in the aftermath of the deadly tsunami.

In a 6-3 decision written by Chief Justice John Roberts, the Court in June 2010 carved out a frightening new exception to the First Amendment. Basically it says that if a person or organization has carried out some kind of activity that was somehow “coordinated” with a group that has been listed by the Secretary of State as a terrorist organization, then that person or organization can be prosecuted for giving “material support” to terrorists. That activity can be wholly peaceful, have peacemaking or humanitarian relief as its goal, and involve nothing more than words.

The Supreme Court’s constitutionally vague decision gives the government a powerful tool to prosecute international solidarity activists. As the ACLU-Mass blog notes:

If the African National Congress were still on the State Department’s list — it was taken off by an Act of Congress as a 90th birthday present to Nelson Mandela in 2008 — then, theoretically at any rate, anyone from this country who worked with Mandela, or enabled Mandela’s voice to be heard could have faced criminal charges.

While in its June 2010 decision the Supreme Court declared that it was not criminalizing independent advocacy of ideas or opinions, ACLU-Mass notes that this was “overlooked in Boston where, in December 2011, a federal jury found Tarek Mehanna guilty of conspiracy to provide material support to terrorists without any kind of demonstrated link being made to a terrorist organization.”

Ideological war

The (mis)application of anti-terror legislation is something that I have been scrutinizing on my blog, focusing on the case of three young North Carolina Muslim men who were indicted, convicted of and received decades-long sentences for conspiracy to provide material support for foreign terrorist organizations and, in two of their cases, for conspiracy to kill, kidnap, harm or maim persons in a foreign country.

However, the government did not identify which specific groups the men were plotting to provide material support for. The indictment instead uses the word jihad over and over again, as though that was a specific crime codified in US law, and refers to generic mujahideen (repeatedly mis-transliterated from Arabic as mujihadeen in the indictment, revealing US attorneys’ complete ignorance with the subject matter). Mujahideen roughly translates to “holy warrior” but does not refer to any specific group of people.

During the sentencing hearings for the three young North Carolina men, which I covered for The Electronic Intifada, statements made by government prosecutors suggested that it was ideology on trial. One of the defendants’ sympathies with Iraqis resisting US occupation forces in Fallujah was treated as evidence of him being sympathetic with terrorism. In one of the other men’s hearing, a US attorney referred to the US military as the “arm by which we have fought radical Islam all over the world.”

The North Carolina defendants were conflated with parties fighting the US military overseas, suggesting that the US government views the prosecution of US Muslims as the “domestic” front of the war on terror, and that ideological opposition to US foreign policy is “evidence” of “terrorist” leanings.

Never-ending “war on terror”

The dangers posed to civil liberties by the indefinite, ideological “war on terrorism,” which has no geographic boundaries, have been particularly felt by Arab and Muslim communities in the US. Environmental and animal liberation activists have also been treated as domestic terrorists, and now Palestine solidarity activists are under threat of being prosecuted under anti-terrorism legislation. (Of course, Palestine activism in the US has been criminalized for decades — see this story I co-authored with my colleague Nora Barrows-Friedman for a bit of that history.)

The US State Department has said more than once that organizers with the US Boat to Gaza may be investigated for violations of material support to foreign terrorist organizations. US Congress late last year introduced a bill seeking to investigate the US Boat to Gaza.

Meanwhile the flow of money and arms to Israel goes unabated, and groups raising money to fund Israeli settlements enjoy tax-exempt status, just to identify but some of the double standards of what constitutes material support for “terror.”

The situation on the ground grows ever worse in Palestine, and Arab and Muslim communities face increased injustice in the US. It’s our job to raise our voices both in support for boycott, divestment and sanctions measures on Israel — including cutting off US aid — and in support of the civil liberties of those being repressed in the US.

Comments

Palestinians have the right to have thier free state , independence and they have the right to return to thier homeland Palestine.

Well, it looks as if we're all terrorists now if we're opposed to US government policy. Whatever happened to democracy and the fundamental principles of the US Constitution? This use of the Courts to perpetrate injustices recalls what was done in the British courts during the 'Northern Ireland Conflict'. It rebounded on successive British governments and will likewise undermine the international credibility of the US political establishment.