Tuesday, October 23, 2007

DOJ: a tangle of legal confusion

From the LA Times, via Atrios, comes word of the collapse of the DOJ’s prosecution of a U.S.-based Islamic NGO that the government had shut down in 2001 on never-substantiated charges of supporting terrorism abroad.

DALLAS -- The U.S. Justice Department suffered a major setback in another high-profile terrorist prosecution Monday when its criminal case against five former officials of a now-defunct Islamic charity collapsed into a tangle of legal confusion.

. . .

President Bush announced in December 2001 that the Texas-based charity's assets were being seized, and in a Rose Garden news conference accused the organization of financing terrorism. Monday's outcome, however, raised serious questions about those allegations as well.

"I think it is a huge defeat for the government," said David Cole, a Georgetown University law professor specializing in 1st Amendment cases and terrorism prosecutions.

"They spent almost 15 years investigating this group, seized all their records and had extensive wiretapping and yet could not obtain a single conviction on charges of supporting a terrorist organization."

. . .

Juror William Neal, 33, who said his father worked in military intelligence, said that the government's case had "so many gaps" that he regarded the prosecution as "a waste of time."

. . .

The Holy Land Foundation was created in Los Angeles in 1988 and later moved to Richardson, Texas, outside Dallas. By 2001 it had become the largest Muslim charity in the U.S. and is believed to have distributed about $56 million here and abroad.

The FBI first began investigating the foundation nearly 15 years ago. Court records show that it was periodically subjected to government surveillance. After the Bush administration ordered the charity closed, Holy Land officials fought unsuccessfully in federal civil courts to reinstate it.

In 2004, the government alleged that Holy Land and its officials funneled about $12 million to Hamas through local charities called zakat committees. The government argued that from its inception Holy Land was intended to be a fundraising tool for Hamas, a contention that was never documented in court.

. . .

Additionally, he said, the case should raise questions about the administrative process that enabled the government to shut down Holy Land almost six years ago, long before criminal charges were brought.

"That was a summary process that involved no trial, permitted the government to rely on secret evidence and barred the defendants from ever introducing their own evidence in court. Now we see when they are required to put their evidence on the table, the government is not able to prove a single charge," Cole said.

This sounded familiar to me. A quick trip to the State Department’s website reveals this:

December 2005 amendments to the administrative liability code impose large fines for violations of procedures governing NGO activity, as well as for "involving others" in illegal NGOs. The law does not specify whether "illegal NGOs" are those that were forcibly suspended or closed, or those that were simply unregistered. The amendments also increased penalties against international NGOs for engaging in political activities, activities inconsistent with their charters, or activities not approved in advance by the government. The February 2004 banking decree, although ostensibly designed to combat money laundering, was selectively enforced to prevent both registered and unregistered NGOs involved in human rights or political work from receiving outside funding.

. . .

During the year the government also forced many international NGOs to close, citing alleged violations of the law. The closures were part of government efforts to minimize the presence of Western organizations, based on the stated belief that their programs aimed to forcibly introduce democracy and subvert the existing regime.

. . .

On January 11, the Tashkent City Civil Court ordered the human rights NGO Freedom House to suspend its operations for six months based on the charge that the organization had provided Internet access without a license. On February 7, an appeals court rejected the organization's appeal of the suspension order. Following an unsuccessful appeal of the suspension and a criminal investigation of the organization's staff, the civil court ordered Freedom House to close on March 6. In 2005 the government had subjected Freedom House and its employees to frequent harassment in 2005. Official television stations publicly accused Freedom House of supporting suspected terrorists in documentaries on the May 2005 violence in Andijon.

On March 6, the Tashkent office of the Eurasia Foundation voluntarily suspended its activities after the MOJ filed a request for its suspension with the Tashkent Civil Court. The request alleged that the foundation had made grants to local NGOs and conducted seminars without prior government permission, among other technical violations.

On April 19, the country director of the International Research and Exchanges Board (IREX) departed the country, and the representative office subsequently liquidated its operations, following its unsuccessful appeal of a December 2005 court order to close and a criminal investigation of several of its local staff members. The government based IREX's expulsion primarily on the charge that the organization had provided Internet access without a license.

On April 27, the Tashkent Civil Court ordered the Tashkent office of the American Bar Association's Central European and Eurasian Law Initiative (ABA/CEELI) to close. According to the government controlled press, the decision was based on activities that ran counter to ABA/CEELI's charter, including supporting and providing legal assistance to local NGOs. On May 23, the court denied ABA/CEELI's appeal of the ruling.

On May 4, the court ordered the closure of the NGO Counterpart International, ruling that the organization had violated its charter.

On June 1, the court ordered the closure of the American Councils for International Education (ACTR/ACCELS), a student exchange organization. Government controlled press agencies attributed the closure to the allegation that ACCELS had sent over 100 high school students abroad without informing authorities. The city prosecutor subsequently initiated a criminal investigation of its staff, but closed it without any findings because the organization's former office director died.

The report goes on in a similar vein for another page or two. Of course, the country under discussion here is Uzbekistan, whose government slaughtered hundreds—maybe thousands—of its own citizens at Andijan in May 2005. Perhaps the U.S. government should confer with Uzbek President Karimov for some pointers on how to more effectively stifle dissent and suppress free association, because the DOJ’s current efforts aren’t going so well.

[Image: AP/Wide World Photos - Donald Rumsfeld and Islam Karimov]

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