US freezes Chicago Palestinian leader’s bank accounts

9 May 2011

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Hatem Abudayyeh leads chants during a protest of former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert at the University of Chicago, October 2010.

(Maureen Clare Murphy)

The US government has frozen the bank accounts belonging to Hatem Abudayyeh, a Palestinian community organizer and director of a social service organization serving the Arab community in Chicago, and his wife, Naima.

Meanwhile, several members of Congress have written to the Obama administration to express their concerns about violations in civil liberties as a result of earlier government actions toward Abudayyeh and other activists.

The freezing of the Abudayyeh family’s bank accounts on Friday, 6 May is the latest development in a secret grand jury investigation that has been launched by US District Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald’s office in Chicago. The freezing of the accounts has raised concerns that criminal indictments in the case may be imminent.

“I was downtown [in Chicago] on Friday, I had parked my car in a garage and when I tried to use my debit card to get out, it was declined,” Hatem Abudayyeh, director of the Arab American Action Network, told The Electronic Intifada. “I talked to Naima right away and she said she had no access with her card either, so I had to call a friend in the [Chicago] Loop to borrow money to get my car out of the garage.”

The next day the couple went to their bank branch, where the manager said that he had no information but that their accounts were frozen as a result of a government order.

The Abudayyehs’ accounts were frozen just two days before Mother’s Day is observed in the United States. “We were planning on having lunch with my mom and her family, and I couldn’t buy flowers or anything like that,” Hatem Abudayyeh said.

Last September, federal agents raided and searched the Abudayyehs’ home and confiscated the family’s belongings, including financial records and, as Hatem Abudayyeh told The Electronic Intifada last November, “everything that said ‘Palestine’ on it.” Federal agents also confiscated home videos that Naima Abudayyeh, a Palestinian immigrant, had recorded during a family visit to Palestine last summer.

The Abudayyehs’ five-year-old daughter was present during the raid and the family was mainly confined to their small living room during the hours-long search through their home.

That same day, federal agents raided several other homes and offices across the Midwest, serving subpoenas to 14 anti-war and international solidarity activists to appear before a federal grand jury in Chicago. After those activists refused to testify to a grand jury, saying that they were being unfairly targeted because of their work organizing in opposition to US foreign policy in the Middle East, Afghanistan and Colombia, nine additional activists were served subpoenas around the month of December.

The nine additional activists served subpoenas are all residents of Chicago and all are Palestinians or those who have organized in solidarity with the Palestinian people. The Electronic Intifada’s managing editor, Maureen Clare Murphy, was served a subpoena on 21 December. The subpoena issued to Murphy is not connected to her work with The Electronic Intifada, but likely targets her because of her Palestine solidarity activism.

All 23 activists who have received subpoenas since September have refused to testify, despite risking being jailed for doing so.

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. Activists targeted by these subpoenas, their lawyers, and their supporters, believe the government is using the grand jury as a form of political inquisition and intelligence gathering, targeting groups and individuals working for a more peaceful US foreign policy.

Attack on the US Palestinian community

According to a statement made by the Committee to Stop FBI Repression and the Coalition to Protect People’s Rights and also distributed by the US Palestinian Community Network, “Not only does the government’s action [to freeze the bank accounts] seriously disrupt the lives of the Abudayyehs and their five-year-old daughter, but it represents an attack on Chicago’s Arab community and activist community and the fundamental rights of Americans to freedom of speech” ( “Demand US Attorney Fitzgerald unfreeze the bank accounts of the Abudayyeh family,” 8 May 2011).

Of the total of 23 activists who have been subpoenaed, seven are Palestinians from Chicago — home to one of the largest Palestinian communities outside of the Middle East. Scores of Arab community and Palestine solidarity organizations, as well as anti-war groups, civil liberties organizations and faith groups, have issued statements condemning the investigation and attempts to criminalize the Palestine solidarity movement in the US.

The investigation for which the 23 activists have been targeted takes places in the context of widespread surveillance and repression of the Muslim and Arab communities in the US.

And as The Electronic Intifada reported in November of last year, the investigation targeting the subpoenaed activists is just the latest chapter in a long history of US government attempts to criminalize Palestine community organizing and support work in the country.

In December 2001, the US government shut down the largest Muslim charity in the US, the Holy Land Foundation, which sent direct humanitarian aid to Palestinians living under Israeli military occupation, amongst other places. Five defendants prosecuted in relation to the case are serving out lengthy prison sentences of 15 to 65 years (for more information, see the Holy Land Foundation case website).

Other prominent Palestinian community organizers in the US who have been put on trial in recent years because of their work educating Americans about the impact of US military aid to Israel and raising funds for humanitarian assistance for Palestinians living under occupation are Dr. Sami al-Arian, Muhammad Salah and Dr. Abdelhaleem Ashqar.

All three were acquitted by juries of US citizens of all terrorism and racketeering-related charges but have been charged with or convicted of obstruction of justice or contempt of court for refusing to name the names of other Palestinian activists in the US and in the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip.

Investigation into material support law violations

While the US government does not comment on grand jury investigations or even confirm that they are underway, search warrants used to raid activists’ homes last September indicate that the home invasions and subpoenas are part of an investigation into violations of the law banning material support for foreign terrorist organizations.

The material support legislation was enacted under the Clinton administration, expanded with the PATRIOT act under Bush and expanded even further last summer after the Supreme Court ruled in Holder v. Humanitarian Law Project that political speech can be considered material support for foreign terrorist organizations if done in a “coordinated way.”

The broad scope of the material support laws — especially after last summer’s Supreme Court decision — has provoked sharp criticism from civil liberties groups. Humanitarian agencies have also protested the breadth of the laws, saying it impacts their ability to carry out their work.

Critics of the legislation have pointed out that had these laws been in place during the South Africa anti-apartheid movement, it would have criminalized the entire movement in the US. At the peak of the movement, the Reagan administration’s State Department placed Nelson Mandela’s party, the African National Congress (ANC), on the designated foreign terrorist organization list. The South Africa solidarity movement in the US took direction from the ANC.

Undercover agent at center of case

The basis of the investigation for which Abudayyeh and the 22 other activists have been targeted appears to be the word of an undercover law enforcement agent who infiltrated anti-war groups in Minneapolis.

The agent, who went by the name of Karen Sullivan, became involved in the anti-war movement in Minneapolis around the time of the 2008 Republican National Convention — one of the largest anti-war protests in the US in years (“Who was Karen Sullivan?City Pages, 20 January 2011). The 14 activists subpoenaed in September were all involved in organizing permitted marches to protest the convention.

In addition to apparently surveilling activists, the undercover agent also disrupted their work. “Sullivan” elected to join an educational trip to Israel and the occupied West Bank in the summer of 2009. When she and the two women from Minneapolis with whom she was traveling arrived at Ben Gurion International Airport near Tel Aviv, they were detained and ultimately deported. The two women with whom the agent was traveling have since been subpoenaed to appear before a grand jury.

The identity of the undercover agent has been confirmed in discussions between the activists’ legal team and the US attorneys. However, the undercover agent’s identity was not disclosed during the discovery process of the lawsuit filed by Mick Kelly — one of those raided in September — after Kelly was shot at close range and injured by a high-velocity marking device during one of the Republican National Convention marches.

Attorneys representing Kelly, one of the organizers of the march, filed a motion in March of this year to reopen the lawsuit discovery process and subpoena “Sullivan” as she was present when he was shot (“Lawsuit against police violence at Republican National Convention to go forward,” Fight Back! News, 4 March 2011).

Call to action

The Committee to Stop FBI Repression and the Coalition to Protect People’s Rights are calling on supporters to call US District Attorney Fitzgerald’s office today to protest the ongoing investigation and the freezing of the Abudayyeh family’s bank accounts (“May 9: Demand US Attorney Fitzgerald unfreeze the bank accounts …”).

Meanwhile, hundreds of concerned citizens have signed a pledge issued by the Committee to Stop FBI Repression to take action in the event of activists being jailed for refusing to testify to a grand jury or being indicted (Pledge to resist FBI, grand jury repression).

Activists across the country have built a broad support movement that has seen trade union resolutions in support of the targeted activists from locals representing more than 600,000 workers in the US. They have also lobbied to elected representatives and several members of Congress have written letters to the Obama administration raising concern of the investigation’s violations of civil liberties (see “Statements from legislators about the case,” Committee to Stop FBI Repression).