US sued over “terrorist” designation that has robbed Palestinian American of basic rights for 17 years

Muhammad Salah

Tannen Maury EPA/Newscom

A lawsuit has been filed challenging the constitutionality of the “terrorist” designation of Palestinian American citizen Muhammad Salah and the unprecedented restrictions that come with it.

The complaint filed yesterday by a team of attorneys from the Center for Constitutional Rights, the People’s Law Office and a private firm contends that Salah’s fundamental rights are violated by the designation. The US Department of Treasury’s 1995 classification of Salah as a “specially designated terrorist” bars “virtually all economic transactions, even those necessary for survival,” according to a press release issued yesterday.

“Muhammad Salah is not permitted to get a job, pay rent or a mortgage, pay for his children’s education, obtain medical care or even buy a loaf of bread without first obtaining approval from the Treasury Department,” the release states.

There is no expiry for the terrorist designation or any mechanism to challenge its imposition through the courts. Salah is believed to be the only US citizen classified as such residing in the US.

The civil complaint filed by the attorneys states: “Salah has lived under these unprecedented conditions for more than seventeen years, with no end in sight. No other US citizen must seek such specific advance approval from the government for his every transaction.”

Draconian designation motivated by foreign policy

The executive order designating Salah a “specially designated terrorist,” signed by then President Bill Clinton, was “designed to target groups and individuals considered to be interfering with the Middle East peace process,” yesterday’s press release explains.

At the time that the executive order was issued, the United States was continuing to broker agreements between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization — a series of agreements known in short-hand as the Oslo accords.

The Interim Agreement on the West Bank and the Gaza Strip — also known as Oslo II and the Taba agreement — was signed in September 1995 and led to the establishment of the Palestinian Authority and its police forces and essentially the dismantling of the Palestine liberation movement.

Several Palestinian parties rejected the Oslo accords, which were conducted by the Fatah party-dominated PLO in secret and without any popular mandate. These parties, which include Hamas, Islamic Jihad and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, were designated as “terrorist organizations which threaten to disrupt the Middle East peace process” in the same January 1995 executive order which classifies Salah as a “specially designated terrorist.”

Yesterday’s press release states that at the time of the executive order:

Mr. Salah was incarcerated in an Israeli military prison, charged by an Israeli military court with providing support to Hamas in the early 1990s. At the time, no law barred Americans from supporting Hamas. Following 55 days of intense interrogation, including sleep deprivation and physical brutality, Mr. Salah pled guilty to the charge and entered into a plea agreement. He was released in 1997 and returned to his home in the United States.

As stated in the civil complaint filed yesterday, the executive order designation and its associated restrictions were imposed on Salah without due process: “without a criminal or civil trial, administrative hearing, or even notice and an opportunity to respond.”

The complaint emphasizes the draconian nature of the designation, referring to the US Department of Treasury, Secretary of Treasury Tim Geithner and Adam J. Szubin, director of the treasury department’s Office of Foreign Asset control:

Defendants provided Salah no notice of the factual basis for their action, and no opportunity to respond. He was not even provided with the administrative record upon which the designation was presumably based. There is no endpoint to the designation and its restrictions. Nor is there any requirement that defendants review the designation at any point. Defendants have never sought or received any judicial approval of their actions. They did not seek a judicial warrant in advance of imposing these restrictions, which amounted to an indefinite seizure of the entirety of his assets.

The criminal complaint reveals how the designation restrictions are so sweeping, that compliance with them is virtually impossible. They prohibit Salah, who currently suffers from cancer, from leading anything close to a normal life. The detailed description of what the restrictions mean for Salah’s daily life make it clear that the terrorist designation is a de facto prison sentence, without charge or trial.

Criminalizing advocacy

Not only does the “specially designated terrorist” classification impose severe restrictions on Muhammad Salah, it also undermines the abilities for other individuals and groups to advocate for Salah’s rights.

According to the release, “The American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee and the American Friends Service Committee have joined the suit to challenge the designation’s infringement of their First Amendment rights. The designation makes it a crime for them even to speak out in coordination with Mr. Salah to object to his treatment.”

The ADC and AFSC stated in a press release issued yesterday:

ADC and AFSC cannot now coordinate their activities with Muhammad Salah to publicly criticize the government or advocate for redress without violating the law. The organizations are concerned that the government’s treatment of Salah amounts to unnecessarily sweeping and arbitrary punitive actions that are an egregious affront to the basic values of justice, but AFSC and ADC are restricted in their ability to so advocate in coordination with Salah by the very breadth of the government’s restrictions.

Tortured by Israel, acquitted in US

Muhammad Salah was acquitted by a jury of terror and conspiracy charges in a federal court in Chicago in 2007. As The Electronic Intifada reported in 2010:

[Salah and co-defendant Dr. Abdelhaleem Ashqar were accused] 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.

The Electronic Intifada report adds: “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.”

The Journal of Palestine Studies published a two-part series “Secrets and Lies: The Persecution of Muhammad Salah” by Michael E. Deutsch and Erica Thompson, attorneys with the People’s Law Office who represented Salah during the racketeering trial. The attorneys reveal the shocking ways in which Salah’s rights were repeatedly violated from his 1993 arrest by Israel as he attempted to deliver humanitarian funds to Gaza through the use of an FBI informant “long known within the agency to be untrustworthy” and the indictment and trial.

Because Hamas was not designated a terrorist organization by the US Department of State at the time of Salah’s arrest by Israel, Deutsch and Thompson write:

the indictment itself violated principles prohibiting ex post facto and double jeopardy by prosecuting Salah for conduct that did not constitute a crime at time of his arrest in 1993 and for which he had already served time in a foreign prison. The government sought to admit evidence it knew Israel had obtained through torture, and the United States and Israel colluded to deny Salah the right to obtain information essential to his defense.

Persecuting US Palestinians

The fact that Muhammad Salah’s life has been turned upside down because of of an executive order criminalizing the disruption of the “Middle East peace process” is all the more outrageous given the influence enjoyed by Israel’s well-funded lobby groups in the US and their access to policy makers at nearly every level of US government.

And it is all the more odious considering what a farce the “Middle East peace process” really is. Israel’s ongoing colonization of Palestinian land — feebly protested by pathetic whimpers from the US Department of State — is not only the obstacle to “Middle East peace,” it is at the very root of the conflict.

It is also vile considering that the US’s racketeering case against Salah was founded on a confession made by Salah after being tortured by Israeli interrogators, who were allowed to testify in secret and with severely restricted cross-examination in a federal courtroom in Chicago.

Not only does the US government subsidize Israel’s occupation and provide its apartheid government diplomatic cover in the international arena, it also criminalizes Palestinian in the US who try to give humanitarian aid to their compatriots living under occupation. And it continues to repress them even when it cannot convict them in court.

Author’s note: An earlier version of this post erroneously stated that a criminal complaint was filed challenging the constitutionality of the terrorist designation of Muhammad Salah. This post has been corrected to reflect that it is a civil complaint.




It is disgusting that our country's officials, including the President, stoop to such low handed and lethal tactics to try and squash dissent for U.S. policy of colluding with Israel to screw, abuse, and trample Palestinian rights under international law. The cartoonish action of the DNC the other day at the convention (to reinstate that "Jerusalem is the undivided capital of Israel"), shouted down three times, yet still "passed" portrays the United States partisan support for Israel at the expense of illegally occupied Palestine, let alone how "democracy" is mocked. I stopped watching the convention after that disgraceful episode. I am appalled by my government's complicity in what Israel is doing to Palestine. We espouse democracy, but our actions speak louder than our mouthing of this word. I am embarrassed and ashamed as an American citizen to see our government wreak such havoc for fellow human beings.

Maureen Clare Murphy

Maureen Clare Murphy's picture

Maureen Clare Murphy is senior editor of The Electronic Intifada.