ACLU Urges Court to Reject Interpretation of Terrorism Funding Law that Hinders Work of Humanitarian Groups

May 16, 2005 12:00 am

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SAN FRANCISCO — A law broadened by the Patriot Act exposes legitimate humanitarian organizations to severe criminal penalties simply for doing their jobs, the American Civil Liberties Union said today. The ACLU filed a legal brief Friday in support of a challenge to the law.

While on its face the law prohibits people from providing “material support” to terrorist organizations, the government has interpreted the law in a way that needlessly inhibits humanitarian organizations from helping civilians who live in areas torn by civil strife, the ACLU said.

“The ‘material support’ law should not be construed so broadly as to prevent humanitarian organizations from aiding the most vulnerable civilians in the poorest areas of the world,” said ACLU attorney Jameel Jaffer. “Shutting down terrorism does not require the government to shut down legitimate humanitarian work as well.”

Under the law, Jaffer said, humanitarian organizations that work in areas controlled by violent groups could be prosecuted for distributing food during a famine or natural disaster, sending children’s books to a school, or providing expert advice on how to dig survivors from the rubble of an earthquake.

The ACLU filed its friend-of-the-court brief on behalf of organizations that are concerned that the law will restrict critically needed humanitarian work. The groups are: Global Exchange, Jerusalem Fund for Education and Community Development, Middle East Children’s Alliance, and Operation USA.

The law at issue was expanded by Section 805 of the Patriot Act, which made it unlawful to provide “expert advice and assistance” to a designated organization. The term is defined so broadly that the law could now be used to prosecute people who provide human rights training and encourage designated organizations to renounce violence. The penalties for violating the law are severe: anyone convicted could face 15 years in prison.

In testimony last week before the House Judiciary Subcommittee on Crime, Terrorism, and Homeland Security, Ahilan T. Arulanantham, an attorney with the ACLU of Southern California, described how the law has impeded humanitarian relief operations in the aftermath of the tsunami that devastated much of South Asia.

“Unlike our material support laws, the tsunami did not differentiate between areas under opposition control and those controlled by the Sri Lankan government,” said Arulanantham, who was visiting Sri Lanka at the time of the disaster and spent several weeks volunteering with aid groups. Sri Lanka is one of several countries in Asia where part of the country’s territory is controlled by a group defined as ‘terrorist’ under the statute.

As the ACLU noted in its brief, the government is interpreting the law to allow people to be convicted without any showing that they intended to support unlawful activity. Without such a requirement, the ACLU said, “an organization could be prosecuted even though it opposed the terrorist activities of the designated group; intended its support to be used only for humanitarian purposes; took precautions to ensure that its support was used only for those purposes; and could prove that its support was in fact used only for those purposes.”

The case at issue, Humanitarian Law Project v. Ashcroft, was filed in 1998 by the Center for Constitutional Rights on behalf of people and groups who want to support the lawful, nonviolent activities of two organizations designated as terrorist by the State Department: the Kurdish Workers Party in Turkey and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam in Sri Lanka.

The ACLU’s brief was filed by Jaffer, Ann Beeson and Melissa Goodman of the ACLU and by Dilan A. Esper of the law firm Stein & Flugge, LLP.

It is online at /node/35435.

The ACLU’s Congressional testimony about the material support law is online at /node/21298.

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