Humanitarian activists challenge federal anti-terrorism act

Friday, March 20, 1998

LOS ANGELES (AP) — Assisting foreign groups that have been labeled “terrorist” by the U.S. government should not be illegal, humanitarian activists said in a suit challenging the constitutionality of the federal ban.


The suit filed March 19 in U.S. District Court names as defendants Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, Attorney General Janet Reno and the State Department.


The Humanitarian Law Project of Los Angeles and its president, Ralph Fertig, are among eight plaintiffs who said that the prohibition on aiding Kurds in Turkey and the Tamils in Sri Lanka violates their First Amendment rights.


Attorney Nancy Chang of the Center for Constitutional Rights, which filed the suit, said it is a direct challenge to the Anti-terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996, which makes it a crime to provide material support or resources to activities of foreign organizations designated as “terrorist” by the secretary of state.


“Our clients have been intimidated,” said Chang. “They are not doing things they have a constitutional right to do because they are concerned about the potential penalties.”


A conviction of violating the anti-terrorism law can carry punishment of 10 years in prison and a fine up to $175,000.


Chang said the groups seek to support nonviolent, legal activities by the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), which is seeking self-determination for Kurds in Turkey, and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), which is advocating the rights of the Tamils in Sri Lanka.


The Kurdistan Workers Party has been fighting for Kurdish autonomy in southeastern Turkey since 1984. The war has killed 37,000 people and damaged Turkey’s human rights record. In Sri Lanka, Tamil Tiger rebels have been fighting since 1983 for a homeland for Tamils, who make up 18 percent of the population. At least 51,000 people have been killed.


In addition to providing books, food, clothing and other necessities to orphanages and refugee relief centers, the groups seek to distribute literature and provide training in how to advocate for rights under international law, Chang said.


“Plaintiffs are afraid to provide such support out of fear of criminal investigation, prosecution and conviction,” the lawsuit said. It asks for an injunction declaring the act “to be unconstitutional to the extent that it criminalizes the provision of support not intended to further the unlawful activities of designated organizations.”


The suit notes that the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals recently ruled: “Fund-raising for the lawful activities of a foreign terrorist organization is constitutionally protected by the First Amendment, absent a specific intent to further the illegal ends of the group.”


Among the plaintiffs is Dr. Nagalingam Jeyalingam, a physician whose family fled Sri Lanka in 1983. The suit says he would like to continue donating cash, food, clothing and other materials to help Tamil refugees.


“However, he is afraid to act upon this interest because he fears that doing so would provoke the United States government to criminally investigate, prosecute and convict him under the act for providing material support to a designated (terrorist) organization,” the suit said.