US activists face new repression as political prisoners fight for justice

15 November 2010

101115-us-activism.jpg

The US government is attempting to criminalize solidarity work in the Palestinian community. (Maureen Clare Murphy)


For decades the United States government has attempted to criminalize work in the Palestinian community in support of their national liberation cause. But in recent years this repression has increased dramatically. The Electronic Intifada spoke with the daughter of Sami al-Arian and the daughter of Ghassan Elashi — both political prisoners in the US — about the impact this repression has had on their families’ lives. And in an Electronic Intifada exclusive, Hatem Abudayyeh, an organizer and community leader whose home in Chicago was raided by federal agents on 24 September 2010, spoke to the press for the first time about his family’s story.

The Electronic Intifada spoke with al-Arian, Elashi and Abudayyeh as activists across the United States prepare for emergency demonstrations as the subpoenas for three anti-war and solidarity organizers to appear before a federal grand jury in Chicago are being reactivated by the Department of Justice.

The three activists are among the 14 who received subpoenas during and soon after coordinated FBI raids on homes and offices across the Midwestern US on 24 September. The government says that the raids and subpoenas are part of an investigation into “material support” of foreign terrorist organizations but it has not arrested or charged anyone.

A grand jury, no longer in use anywhere outside the US, is an investigative tool that allows the government to compel citizens to testify even if they are not suspected of any crime.

The 14 targeted activists are involved with various peace with justice groups, including the Palestine Solidarity Group-Chicago, Students for a Democratic Society, the Twin Cities Anti-War Committee, the Colombia Action Network, Fight Back! newspaper, the Freedom Road Socialist Organization and the National Committee to Free Ricardo Palmera. All the activists had submitted letters to the US attorney — the local Department of Justice prosecutor who convenes the grand jury — stating their intent not to testify; the Department of Justice had withdrawn the original subpoenas, but the grand jury was still convened.

The three activists receiving reactivated subpoenas are expected to be offered “immunity” — meaning that they face the choice of informing the government about the activities of other organizers or being jailed for the duration of the grand jury, and possibly facing further charges for criminal contempt of court.

“What [the US government] is doing is gathering political intelligence to indict people under this idea of providing material support for terrorism,” attorney Michael Deutsch, part of the legal defense team for the activists, told The Electronic Intifada. “The grand jury is not an independent body. It is controlled by the US Department of Justice and they decide who is subpoenaed and what the outcome of the grand jury investigation is. It is a tool of the FBI and the justice department to repress political activists.”

Deutsch wrote for The Electronic Intifada in 2008: “In the last forty years the government has used the grand jury as a tool of political inquisition subpoenaing and resubpoenaing activists the government knows will refuse to cooperate, stripping them of their constitutional right against self-incrimination and forcing upon them the choice of informing on their movement or going to jail for contempt.”

In an article contributed to the Mondoweiss site, Deutsch explains: “The search warrants and grand jury subpoenas make it quite clear that the federal prosecutors are intent on accusing public nonviolent political organizers … of providing ‘material support,’ through their public advocacy, for the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colobmia” (“US Justice Department prepares for the ominous expansion of law prohibiting ‘material support’ for terrorism,” 10 November 2007).

The investigation’s legal basis is the bipartisan Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act passed under the Clinton administration in 1996 and expanded with the bipartisan Patriot Act enacted during the Bush administration. In June of this year the implications of the legislation — already used after 11 September 2001 to shut down major Muslim charities in the US — was broadened even further. According to Deutsch in Mondoweiss, in the decision Holder v. the Humanitarian Law Project, the US Supreme Court “decided that nonviolent First Amendment speech and advocacy ‘coordinated with’ or ‘under the direction of’ a foreign group listed by the Secretary of State as ‘terrorist’ was a crime.”

The “foreign terrorist organization” designation is unilaterally declared by the US Secretary of State and virtually impossible to challenge. The Center for Constitutional Rights describes “the government’s current fervor to use the label of terrorism as a brand for groups and organizations that are not toeing the line on US foreign policy” (“Factsheet: Material Support”).

At the height of the movement to bring an end to white supremacist rule in South Africa — the US was among the apartheid regime’s longest-standing supporters — the Reagan administration declared Nelson Mandela’s party, the African National Congress, a foreign terrorist organization. Critics observe that had these laws been enacted then, the entire anti-apartheid movement in the US, which took direction from the ANC, would have been criminalized for providing “material support to terrorism.”

According to the Center for Constitutional Rights fact sheet, “these material support provisions violate the First Amendment as they criminalize activities like distribution of literature, engaging in political advocacy, participating in peace conferences, training in human rights advocacy and donating cash and humanitarian assistance, even when this type of support is intended only to promote lawful and nonviolent activities.”

These laws have had a tremendously chilling impact on civil liberties and humanitarian and domestic political organizing in the US, particularly amongst the Palestinian, Arab and Muslim communities.

Hatem Abudayyeh

Hatem Abudayyeh was asleep on his parents’ couch the morning of 24 September after spending the night with his mother in the emergency room when his wife frantically called him to report that federal agents had raided their home. A Palestinian community leader and solidarity activist, Abudayyeh is also Executive Director of the Arab American Action Network, which provides social services to thousands of families in and around Chicago.

“I ran into my house, passed all the agents and grabbed my daughter and went into the bedroom with her and held her and made sure she was OK,” Abudayyeh told The Electronic Intifada. Abudayyeh, his wife and five-year-old daughter were mainly confined to their small living room while a multi-agency task force searched through all their belongings.

“I wanted to see what they were searching for and grabbing but they wouldn’t allow us to do that,” Abudayyeh said. “They basically grabbed everything that said ‘Palestine’ on it.” During the search that Abudayyeh said went on for more than three hours, the agents went through his wife and daughter’s personal belongings, the family’s library, CD and DVD cases and financial documents. Amongst the materials confiscated were home movies Abudayyeh’s wife had recorded during a family visit to Palestine this summer.

Abudayyeh eventually learned that the home of his friends Joe Iosbaker and Stephanie Weiner, a Chicago couple who are long-time union and anti-war activists, was raided as well. That same morning more than 70 federal agents raided and served subpoenas to prominent organizers in the Twin Cities and Michigan, and called and otherwise harassed activists throughout the country. The office of the Twin Cities-based Anti-War Committee — which led demonstrations against the Republican National Convention, one of the largest anti-war protests in the US in recent years — was raided as well.

101115-hatem-abudayyeh.jpg

Hatem Abudayyeh (Maureen Clare Murphy)


“The most accurate assessment is that on the political level, the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq are not going so well for the administration. There are a lot of developments happening in Colombia and Palestine that are probably also not considered to be what the administration wants to see in those countries,” Abudayyeh said. “This attack on the anti-war movement is another example of the administration, whether Obama’s or Bush’s, trying to criminalize the activities of organizers in the US [working to change] foreign policy in Iraq, Palestine, Afghanistan and Colombia.”

Of the 14 activists targeted on 24 September, Abudayyeh is the only Palestinian or Arab (profiles of those targeted are currently available on stopfbi.net).

“The administration needs to put a local face on the enemy abroad and for many years that has been Arab and Muslim faces. It is interesting that in this case, I’m the only Arab. But the essential goal is the same — to criminalize anti-war activism and criminalize international solidarity activism in defense of a foreign policy that has gone awry and has caused the deaths of many thousands of American troops and many hundreds of thousands of Iraqis and Afghans.”

Abudayyeh and others say there hasn’t been government repression of a social movement in the US on this scale since COINTELPRO — an FBI program implemented in the 1950s and 1960s to infiltrate and disrupt domestic political organizations, particularly the Black Panthers and other oppressed nationality movements.

“We all know what McCarthyism did in this country in the ’50s,” Abudayyeh said. “It’s pretty frightening and disconcerting that in 2010, this can still happen.”

Abudayyeh recognizes that he is hardly the first Palestinian in the US to be targeted for his political views and organizing. “People who are activists in the Palestinian, Arab and Muslim community — especially since 11 September, but for decades before than — have dealt with this government repression,” he said.

Abudayyeh referenced the case of seven Palestinian immigrants and a Kenyan — dubbed the LA 8 — who were subjected to 20 years of prosecution and deportation proceedings for their activities educating Americans about US policy towards Israel and the Palestinians. The US government arrested the eight in 1987 and accused them of organizing in support of a faction of the Palestine Liberation Organization. According to Abudayyeh, persecution of Palestinian activism began with the wave of Palestinian immigrants to the US after Israel’s military occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip in 1967.

“What they are targeted for is challenging US policy as it relates to Palestine,” Abudayyeh added. “Israel receives the largest amount of US foreign and military aid … which they use to occupy and oppress Palestinians in Jerusalem, the West Bank and the Gaza Strip and they use that aid to threaten their neighbors, like Syria and Lebanon. Most of the leading activists around the war in Lebanon in 2006 in the US were Palestinians because we saw that as an extension of the war on the Palestinian people. We don’t separate the US occupation and invasion of Iraq from US support of Israel’s oppression of the Palestinian people.”

However, Abudayyeh said, despite this repression the Palestine support movement in the US has only grown, and today’s generation of student activists are doing even stronger work than what was happening during his youth.

“It’s incumbent for us in the US and everywhere else to speak out against these policies … It is probably the main liberation and social justice issue in the world today. I may be the individual who is being targeted today, but this isn’t an issue of an individual or organizations I work for or are affiliated with; it’s a historical repression and attack on the Palestine support movement in the US.”

There have been several other high-profile cases against Palestinian, Arab and Muslim activists since 11 September 2001. Political prisoners continue to serve draconian sentences as the Department of Justice under the Obama administration enforces the policies of the Bush-era PATRIOT Act and the Clinton administration’s material support laws.

Michael Deutsch told The Electronic Intifada that former university professor and stateless Palestinian Dr. Abdelhaleem Ashqar remains in a federal prison in Petersburg, Virginia following his sentence of 135 months for refusing to testify to a grand jury and inform on the activities of other activists in the US and Palestine. Deutsch said that Dr. Ashqar’s legal defense is filing a habeas corpus petition challenging his sentence, arguing that his rights were violated at his trial.

The US government accused Dr. Ashqar and his co-defendant Muhammad Salah, a Palestinian American, of participation in alleged racketeering activity in support of Hamas after dropping initial material support charges. The government presented as evidence a confession Salah made while he was tortured for 80 days in an Israeli prison and the prosecution’s main witnesses were Israeli intelligence agents who were allowed to testify anonymously with severely restricted cross-examination.

Despite vast resources spent by the US government to convict the two, Salah and Dr. Ashqar were acquitted by a jury of all conspiracy and terrorism-related charges. But Salah was convicted of obstruction of justice for filing false answers to interrogatories in a civil case and was sentenced to 21 months in prison, a sentence he has served out.

“No amount of jailing by the court will compel me to testify against others struggling for Palestinian freedom,” Dr. Ashqar stated in an affidavit given on 12 July 2003 published on the Free Dr. Ashqar Committee website (“Case History - 2003 Affadavit of Abdelhaleem Ashqar).

But Ashqar’s 11-year sentence for refusing to testify to a grand jury is unprecedented in US history and contrasts, for example, with the mere 30-month sentence received by Lewis “Scooter” Libby, former chief of staff to US Vice President Richard Cheney who was convicted in 2007 for actively lying to a grand jury investigating the disclosure of classified information about CIA agent Valerie Plame. Libby served no time, however, as then President George W. Bush commuted the sentence on the grounds that it had been “excessive.”

Sami al-Arian

Meanwhile, Dr. Sami al-Arian, a former professor at the University of South Florida and a longtime political and civil rights activist, has been under house arrest for more than two years following nearly a decade of political prosecution by the federal government. In early 2003, the US government launched a much-publicized assault against al-Arian — then-Attorney General John Ashcroft declared that he was among one of the “most dangerous people in the world” — which led to his imprisonment in solitary confinement for 43 straight months during a five-year detention.

101115-al-arian.jpg

Dr. Sami Al-Arian (Arab American News)

In December 2005, a Florida jury acquitted al-Arian on eight of the seventeen counts, and deadlocked in favor of acquittal on the remaining nine. No guilty verdicts were returned. About five months later, in April 2006, Dr. al-Arian decided to accept a plea agreement from the US government in an effort to spare his family the process of another lengthy trial.

According to the case background, Dr. al-Arian plead guilty to violating a Clinton-era presidential executive order by providing “immigration services” in the 1990s “to persons associated with the PIJ [Palestinian Islamic Jihad], a Palestinian organization listed on the US forbidden organizations (terrorist) list” (“Case background in brief,” Tampa Bay Coalition for Peace). In return, al-Arian agreed to be deported from the US, despite having lived in the country for more than thirty years and despite the fact that he is a stateless Palestinian with no country to return to.

Despite lengthy trials, plea deals and hearings following the acquittals, the Bush administration refused to give up and placed Dr. al-Arian under house arrest in September 2008. After years in detention under deplorable conditions, Dr. al-Arian was charged with criminal contempt charges relating to another case outside the one in which he had originally been involved. A leading prosecutor who — according to Sami’s daughter Laila al-Arian, has a history of making Islamophobic and anti-Arab comments — tried to force Dr. al-Arian into testifying against another Muslim organization in Virginia.

Laila al-Arian, an award-winning journalist and author, spoke to The Electronic Intifada days after a hearing was canceled at the last minute that could have finally decided whether her father could be released or put back on trial.

“My father refused to testify,” Laila al-Arian said. “If he refused to testify, he would be charged with criminal contempt. And if he did testify, he’d be charged with perjury. The prosecutor tried to put him in a catch-22 situation.”

According to al-Arian, the judge in this criminal contempt case, after reading the arguments, said that the very integrity of the justice department is at stake.

“She said that it was beginning to emerge that there was evidence that my father was misled and lied to by the Department of Justice,” al-Arian said. “Because when they signed a plea agreement with him in Florida in 2006, they told him that he wouldn’t have to cooperate or testify, or be forced to be involved in any other case other than his own. And that they would recommend the minimum sentence and that he would be released and deported. That of course never happened. The judge said if the justice department made this deal with my father then everyone in the justice department would be bound to that.”

The judge scheduled a hearing first in April 2009, but it was canceled. In September 2010, the prosecution asked the judge to reschedule a hearing for 29 October — and it was canceled again, with no reason given.

“It’s difficult to say what this all means,” al-Arian said. “It could be conjecture, but we’re hoping my father will be released and finally deported so that we can all move on with life. It’s been almost eight years since his arrest. Eight years is a very long time. We’re anxious for him to be able to move on. He’s lost so many important years already, and we want him to live as a free man. House arrest is not freedom.”

Because Dr. al-Arian is a stateless Palestinian refugee, it is still unknown to where he could be deported.

“Even if the judge rules in my father’s favor and he is released, he still doesn’t have a country to go to,” al-Arian said. “And we really hope that there will be a country that will open its doors to a persecuted political prisoner and a victim of the Bush administration, a victim of a wave of anti-Palestinian activism. It’s mind-boggling that in the 21st century, there is a group of people who don’t have a country. Hopefully someone will be able to adopt him. It’s one more battle we have to fight.”

Ghassan Elashi and the Holy Land Foundation

Similar to Dr. Sami al-Arian and his family, the founders of a US-based Muslim charity and their families are holding out hope that justice could prevail during a new appeals process.

In 2009, Ghassan Elashi, a Palestinian-American cofounder of the Holy Land Foundation (HLF), once the largest Muslim charity in the US, was sentenced to 65 years following a targeted campaign launched by the Bush administration after 11 September 2001. Based in Dallas, Texas, the HLF sent direct humanitarian aid to Palestinians living under Israeli occupation, as well as to Eastern Europe and across the US. The HLF established food banks on the East Coast, helped victims of the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing and provided assistance after floods and tornadoes devastated parts of Iowa and Texas in the 1990s.

As The Electronic Intifada previously reported, just months after the 11 September 2001 attacks, the US Department of the Treasury froze the HLF’s bank accounts as the executive branch of the US government shut down the organization under the auspices of the Patriot Act. Using the Material Support Law provision, the US State Department accused the five HLF founders — now dubbed the Holy Land Five — of providing “assistance” to designated “terrorist groups” (namely Hamas) in Palestine. The Bush administration immediately closed the organization and issued aggressive charges against the charity workers. The federal prosecution team was allowed to use secret evidence, and there was no hearing before the sentencing of the HLF’s cofounders in 2009.

On 27 October 2010, US Attorney General Eric Holder personally awarded the entire local, state and federal prosecution team involved in the HLF case with the second-highest honor in the justice department — the Attorney General’s Award for Distinguished Service.

Noor Elashi, Ghassan Elashi’s daughter, told The Electronic Intifada that the attorney general’s award comes as the defense team is preparing to argue an appeal in front of a three-judge panel on the grounds that the prosecution team violated the constitution at several instances, including the unprecedented use of an anonymous expert witness. If the panel agrees with just one of the arguments made, Elashi said, then that will invalidate all of the convictions, and the prosecution will have to re-try the case.

Another constitutional violation related to the HLF case was found by a federal judge in Dallas, Texas, on 7 November. Judge Jorge Solis ruled during an appeals process that the unsealing of a document which put 246 individuals and groups on a list of so-called “un-indicted co-conspirators” associated with the HLF violated the constitutional Fifth Amendment due process rights of the North American Islamic Trust (NAIT). In other words, the US government’s prosecution team’s release of this list condemned organizations such as NAIT to guilt by association without affording them their constitutional right to defend themselves in court. In the atmosphere of fear induced after 11 September 2001 such aspersions can be lethal to the reputation of any organization or individual.

However, West Bank-based Ma’an News Agency reported that “despite the Fifth Amendment violation … [Judge] Solis denied NAIT’s request, along with that of the Council on American Islamic Relations and the Islamic Society of North America, to have its name taken off the government’s list, finding ‘ample evidence’ linking it to Holy Land [Foundation]” (“US court ‘should not have publicly released’ co-conspirators list”, 8 November 2010).

“The whole appeals process typically takes a year to two years before an oral argument is made,” Elashi said. “We don’t expect to hear anything soon. It could take anywhere between a few months to a few years … But knowing the relentless nature of the prosecution team, they won’t stop. What’s happened to Sami al-Arian is a perfect example of that.”

For now, the Elashi family is anticipating being able to visit Ghassan in prison for the first time in 18 months. Ghassan is currently being held in a Communications Management Unit (CMU) prison facility in Illinois, a block within some prisons that are nicknamed “little Guantanamos” due to the overwhelming majority of Muslims and persons of Arab and Middle Eastern descent being held in them and the draconian detention conditions that are applied.

According to the Center for Constitutional Rights, people imprisoned in CMU facilities are systematically denied any physical contact with family members and are forbidden from hugging, touching or embracing their children, spouses or loved ones during visits. Phone calls are also severely limited. The center says that the CMU units are “an experiment in social isolation” (“CMUs: The Federal Prison System’s Experiment in Social Isolation”).

“There was a one-year visitation ban that was just lifted,” Elashi said. “On Thanksgiving weekend, my family and I are finally going to see my father. He’s become a ghost-like figure to me. When a loved one is being incarcerated, when the only communication is one 15-minute phone call every two weeks, they really start to sort of dissipate in your eyes. I am looking forward to seeing him.”

The Elashi family will be separated from Ghassan by a plexiglass wall, and they will only be able to communicate through a telephone receiver. The entire conversation, Noor Elashi said, will be live-monitored from the justice department in Washington, DC, and can be terminated at any moment.

“Even when you get to the prison itself, there is this sense that something may happen during the security process that may deny you entry,” Elashi added. “It’s sort of like being at [an Israeli-controlled] border crossing — for example, I’ve never been allowed into Palestine.”

Elashi said that although her family remains hopeful with the appeals process now underway, the widespread attacks on US-based activists and charity workers is increasingly troubling.

“I think that it’s finally hitting closer to home, and is becoming more apparent than ever in 2010 — nearly a decade after 11 September — that everyone’s at risk,” Elashi said.

“Not only people like my father, who founded a charity, but anybody,” Elashi added. “Even a former president of the United States, Jimmy Carter, is at risk of being prosecuted under the Material Support Law because he helped supervise Lebanese elections, and has associated with [Lebanese political movement] Hizballah. American newspapers are at risk, because they’ve printed op-ed pieces by Hizballah and Hamas officials, an act that could be argued that, under the Material Support Law, aids these people and these parties by furthering their goals and giving them a voice.”

Lives disrupted, movements at stake

Amidst the mounting reports of federal raids on the Somali community in the US, the conviction of four African-American Muslim men accused of plotting to bomb a synagogue in what critics say was a case of entrapment, and reports of FBI informants infiltrating the Muslim community in the US, there is a growing movement to fight back against what many view as repressive, racist policies.

Following the raids and subpoenas of the 14 anti-war and solidarity activists in September, emergency demonstrations were held outside of FBI and other federal buildings in at least 62 US cities. Thousands have called in to the offices of President Obama, Attorney General Holder and US Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald. Civil rights and liberties organizations, social justice and faith groups and trade unions have issued dozens of statements of solidarity. Ad-hoc groups have formed around the US to push back against what many view as a test case that will have repercussions for the wider social justice movement in the country. And the first national meeting of the Committee to Stop FBI Repression was held in New York City earlier this month.

“It’s definitely time for Americans, for all of us, to respond to this and join a massive campaign that would really approach Congress about revising the Material Support Law,” Elashi said. “It’s flawed. And it’s one that is responsible for [targeting] many innocent people — not only my father but activists all over the country whose only crimes are supporting the Palestinian cause, as well as causes in Colombia and other places.”

Laila al-Arian echoed this sentiment. “Unfortunately, we’ve seen that the Obama administration isn’t much better than its predecessor when it comes to American Muslims and civil liberties — and even anti-war activists,” she said. “Anyone who’s espousing views that are in any way controversial or unpopular can be a target. It’s just a way to stifle dissent and activism, which are completely lawful activities that are seen as unpopular. I just hope that people begin to make their voices heard when it comes to these kinds of crackdowns.”

Hatem Abudayyeh said that “National organizations like the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, the Arab American Institute, the National Network for Arab American Communities and other national organizations which have civil rights and liberties at the forefront of their agenda should leverage the relationships they have with the administration, the Department of Justice, the US attorney’s offices to put pressure … to drop this investigation and to end these grand juries.”

“We have powerful institutions and we have prominent individuals across the country from the Arab and Muslim community,” Abudayyeh added. “Those organizations have put their names on to sign-on letters, they’ve made phone calls to US Attorney General Eric Holder and the US attorney and the president, and we need to continue to put that pressure on.”

Meanwhile, the Elashi family prepares to see Ghassan for the first time in a year and a half, the al-Arian family awaits the deportation of Sami, and countless other families pay an unbearable price for their first amendment activity supporting the Palestine liberation struggle.

“In one sense I’m a bit luckier than others,” Abudayyeh said, “because there are some couples in which both partners have been subpoenaed and who have young children. So if they continue to refuse to testify and there’s a possibility they might be held in civil contempt, then they have really difficult decisions to make in terms of their children … I know that my daughter will be in good hands with her mother and my parents and my siblings and everyone else in the extended family providing support.”

Editor’s note: This article originally reported that Dr. Sami al-Arian was convicted of contempt of court but he so far has only been charged. The article has been corrected.

Nora Barrows-Friedman is an award-winning independent journalist, writing for The Electronic Intifada, Inter Press Service, Al-Jazeera, Truthout and other outlets. She regularly reports from Palestine.

Maureen Clare Murphy is managing editor of The Electronic Intifada and an organizer with the Palestine Solidarity Group-Chicago.