In This Article, I Show How Easy It Is For Peaceful People to Violate the Patriot Act and Face 15 Years in Prison

In This Article, I Show How Easy It Is For Peaceful People to Violate the Patriot Act and Face 15 Years in Prison

posted in: Current TV RSS by On July 12th, 2010

The court handed down its decision in a case brought by the Humanitarian Law Project, an NGO that sought to advise the Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK) — which the U.S. considers a terrorist organization — on filing human rights complaints with the United Nations and conducting peace negotiations with the Turkish government. In its 6-3 decision, the supremes ruled that the statute didn’t trample the organization’s members’ rights to free speech and free assembly as long as they had no direct contact with the PKK. Ironically, in theory that means members of the Humanitarian Law Project can publicly urge the PKK to carry out deadly acts of terrorism without running afoul of the law, but they can’t work with the group in an effort to stop the violence.

The decision casts the court’s rightward balance in sharp relief. Just months ago, the same court ruled in the Citizens United case that the government doesn’t have a sufficiently compelling interest in limiting political campaign dollars to infringe on the free speech rights of corporations — “artificial persons.” But the court, dismissing the admonition that those who would give up essential liberties for some temporary security deserve neither, was quick to accept the Justice Department’s claim that fighting terrorism trumps the rights of the Humanitarian Law Project. Writing for the majority, Chief Justice John Roberts cited the Federalist Papers, which held that "security against foreign danger" is an "avowed and essential object" of the U.S. government.

Opening the Door for (More) Political Prosecutions

Arguably, the most fundamental flaw in the statute is that there is no apolitical and universally accepted definition of “terrorism.” The United Nations has wrangled with the issue for years, and the major obstacle is simple to understand: everyone wants to define it as political violence in furtherance of a goal with which they disagree.

By criminalizing even a tenuous association with groups the U.S. government lists as terrorist organizations, the statute opens the door to prosecuting people for taking unpopular sides in remote conflicts.

Sometimes, however, history proves those people were on the “right” side. Perhaps the most obvious example is the African National Congress (ANC), which the United States designated as a terrorist organization during the 1980s. If the Patriot Act had been in effect at the time, any U.S. citizen who communicated with the ANC while organizing opposition to South Africa’s racist system would have been eligible for a lengthy prison term. Now, it's the ruling party in today’s post-apartheid South Africa.

The ANC isn’t the only example. In the early 1990s, Robert Gelbard, Bill Clinton's special envoy to the Balkans, described the Kosovo Liberation Army as, "without any questions, a terrorist group." As journalist Michael Moran noted, by the end of the decade, “the United States had embraced the KLA's cause,” and, “after the war, the KLA was transformed into the Kosovo Protection Corps, which now works alongside NATO forces patrolling the province.”

An American may have sided with the Serbs or with the KLA, but if the Patriot Act had been in effect, engaging the latter would have constituted a serious crime. Other groups once designated as terrorist organizations that have either laid down their arms or joined the political process include the Irish Republican Army and the Palestine Liberation Organization.

At the same time, some organizations that commit terrible crimes against civilians never make the list because their goals dovetail with our own. Sometimes we even support them. During the 1980s, the Nicaraguan contras were known to torture, rape and kill innocent civilians sympathetic to the Sandinistas, but Ronald Reagan praised the group as heroic “freedom fighters.” In Iran, the Mujahedin-e Kalq (MEK) is universally condemned as a terrorist organization, and the United States government has listed it as one. But that didn’t stop former Colorado Rep. Tom Tancredo from saying, “We should be aiding them, instead of restricting their activities. We can use the MEK; they are in fact warriors. Where we need to use that kind of force, we can use them."

It’s worth noting that Islamic groups lead the list of designated terrorist organizations, followed by communists and nationalists. Groups like the Gush Emunim Underground — a radical Israeli settler group that was responsible for a series of attacks against Palestinian civilians — don’t make the cut. It’s a clear signal that the State Department’s list is highly politicized.

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