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The US v. Freedom?

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Local activists investigated by U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald

By Ania Szremski, arts editor

“At 7 a.m. on Friday I heard the policeman’s knock at my door. I looked out and saw 10 or more armed men and women. I opened the door and the man in front of me showed me his FBI badge and presented the warrant to search our home. It said our home was being searched because of Stephanie’s and my activities and opposition to the U.S. government’s military aid to Israel and Columbia, including our support for the people of Palestine and the people of Columbia.”

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This is Joe Iosbaker’s account of the FBI raid of his home on September 24, 2010. On that day, Joe, his wife Stephanie Weiner, and nine other anti-war activists in Chicago, Minneapolis, and Dearborn, Michigan, were served with subpoenas by the FBI to testify before a grand jury regarding their political activities.

The Chicago Tribune quoted Steve Warren, the spokesman for the FBI in Minneapolis, stating that “these warrants [were] seeking evidence in support of an ongoing Joint Terrorism Task Force investigation concerning the material support of terrorism.”

The raids that took place on September 24 turned out to be just the beginning of this investigation. In the last days of September, the FBI served subpoenas to three more individuals, bringing the total to 14. Several of these activists were affiliated with the communist-leaning Freedom Road Socialist Organization (including Iosbaker and Weiner). Sarah Martin, who was also served with a subpoena, is a 71-year-old member of Women Against Military Madness. Other individuals were affiliated with the Arab American Action Network, Students for a Democratic Society, and the Colombia Action Network.

According to Jim Fennerty, an attorney with the National Lawyer’s Guild (the organization representing all of those subpoenaed), what all of these individuals had in common was that “they were some of the main organizers in Minneapolis for a protest against the Republican National Convention [in 2008]. An undercover FBI agent infiltrated one of the groups that was helping to organize [the protest], called the Palestinian Solidarity Group, and then discovered that the group has been sending delegations to Palestine for the past eight or nine years.

“Although these groups have had activist activities all over the world, what they’re focusing on is any contact [these individuals have had] with any Palestinian organizations or individuals on the ground,” Fennerty continued. “They’re especially looking for any contact with the General Union of Palestinian Women. What the GUPW does is, they get funding, they run day care centers and women empowerment centers. The government believes that this organization is affiliated with terrorism. So the government is really looking for any contact anyone has had with this group.”

All 14 individuals refused to testify before the Grand Jury. The U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald’s office allowed the dates of their grand jury hearings (slated for October 4, 12, and 19 of that year) to pass.

However, reports indicate that the FBI continued to pay visits to individuals of interest throughout the following months. On November 2, the U.S. Attorney’s office reactivated the subpoenas for Anh Pham, Tracy Molm and Sarah Martin, three of the original 14 activists. On December 3, three more women were subpoenaed (American Sarah Smith and two Palestinian-American women); and finally, on December 21, four more subpoenas were delivered to Chicago-area activists, including SAIC alumn and noted Palestinian-rights activist, Maureen Murphy (see F Newsmagazine’s in-depth interview with Murphy in this issue). In the end, a total of nine new subpoenas were delivered in December.

According to Fennerty, “The last nine, and this includes Maureen Murphy, either went to Palestine, or they raised money for a delegation to go to Palestine, or they helped organize a delegation. There are five Palestinians out of the nine that just got subpoenaed.” Fennerty does not believe any of these nine individuals will be accused of supporting terrorism; rather, the FBI is hoping to obtain intelligence from them.

Refusal to testify at a grand jury hearing is punishable with imprisonment for the entire duration of the grand jury investigation. However, in this case, the penalty is potentially even stiffer: because the grand jury is investigating the possible support of terrorism, prison terms for refusing to testify can be even longer. A case in point: in 2007, Abdelhaleem Ashqar, a Palestinian-American professor of business administration, refused to testify at a grand jury hearing. Although he had earlier been acquitted of the terrorist charges levied against him, Ashqar was sentenced to 11 years in prison for refusing to testify.

When asked if Maureen Murphy would likely go to prison, Fennerty answered, “Well, they can’t arrest her immediately. If Maureen refuses to testify, what happens is, they can offer her immunity. And then if she still refuses to testify, they can hold a hearing to find her in contempt. And if you’re held in contempt, then they can hold you in ‘coercion.’ Actually, they’re holding you in custody, but they call it ‘in coercion’ for some reason. And that can last for as long as the grand jury trial.”

Area activists who are refusing to testify before the grand jury often invoke both their First Amendment and Fifth Amendment rights to justify their position. While the Fifth Amendment does “require a grand jury indictment for federal criminal charges,” according to the American Bar Association, it also promises the right to due process, the right to withhold self-incriminating testimony, and the right to not be tried for the same charge twice. According to critics, a grand jury hearing violates these rights.

In Fennerty’s words, “What happens is, there’s like 23 people [who are chosen by the government and not screened for bias]. The grand jury is taken over by the prosecutor’s office. There is no other story presented except the one presented by the prosecutor. If you go talk to them, your lawyer can’t go in the room with you. He has to stay in the hall and you can come out in the hall and ask him questions. You’re all alone, and there may be many general prosecutors in there. It’s not an open process.”

F Newsmagazine contacted Paul Green, the Director of the School of Policy Studies at Roosevelt University, to inquire whether or not the compulsion to testify before a grand jury was indeed a violation of these individuals’ constitutional rights.

“The U.S. Attorney’s Office has the right to subpoena whoever they want,” he answered. “These people might feel that [it’s a violation of their rights], but the U.S. Attorney always wins. The fact of the matter is that under our constitution the U.S. Attorney’s Office has the right to subpoena, and if you don’t cooperate, you will be thrown in jail. And I support that 100 percent. We’ve got to be a country of laws, not a country of opinions.”

The subpoenaed individuals say that they were targeted due to their opposition to U.S. military support of Israel, and feel that the FBI is violating their right to freedom of speech and association. In a statement made on December 21, Maureen Murphy stated, “What is at stake for all of us is our right to dissent and organize to change harmful U.S. foreign policy.”

Katrina Plotz, one of the original 14 activists subpoenaed to testify back in October, agrees. Like several of the other activists, Plotz had visited Colombia and also attempted to visit Palestine (although she was not permitted to enter Israel and immediately was deported back to the United States), and she cites this as the FBI’s motivation in investigating her. “I am guilty of nothing other than seeking and sharing information about the impact of U.S. foreign policy abroad,” she said in a statement given on October 12. “I have done nothing wrong. And my friends and I should not be subject to harassment or intimidation from the FBI because of our political views.”

Students at SAIC have been active in protests against the grand jury hearings. Annan Shehadi, a first-year grad student in VCS, organized SAIC’s chapter of Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) last year with fellow student Daryl Meador. Shehadi told F, “We strongly condemn U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald’s and the government’s attack against antiwar and solidarity activists throughout the country. These activists are neither terrorists nor supporters of terrorism. The subpoenas are an attack against the First Amendment right to freedom of speech and meant to scare people into silence and discourage dissent regarding America’s foreign policy. Many of the activists have been subpoenaed for their support of the Palestinian struggle for peace and justice, which stands contrary to America’s support of Israel’s aggression against the Palestinians. SJP at SAIC stands in solidarity with all those who have been subpoenaed, particularly fellow SJP students at other Chicago schools. We have endorsed a statement condemning this witch-hunt.”

Shehadi continued, “As students, we consider education to be of utmost importance and we have a duty to share our knowledge with others and speak out against the atrocities being committed against the Palestinian people; we are outraged by the U.S. government’s opposition to such peaceful actions. As long as the civil rights of fellow human beings are denied and the oppression of Palestinians continues, we will not be silent.”

Currently, most of the Midwest activists who have been served subpoenas still continue to refuse to testify. As for the future, Fennerty says, “eventually what’s going to happen is that the Attorney is going to hand out an indictment. The government appears bent on indicting someone. He could indict the original 14. And the indictment is for material support of terrorism.”

The U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald’s office declined to comment on this story.

The Grand Jury: Definition

According to the American Bar Association, a grand jury is an assemblage of people who are asked to review evidence and testimony brought forth by a prosecutor, in order to determine if there is enough evidence to give an indictment. A grand jury trial is different from a regular jury trial in at least four key ways.

First, the grand jury is not screened for bias. Second, the prosecutor is allowed to present evidence that might not be admissible in a regular court of law, such as hearsay evidence. The prosecutor is also permitted to withhold pieces of evidence as she or he sees fit, and the individual on trial does not always have the chance to make a statement in his or her defense or to present his or her own evidence. Additionally, the “double jeopardy” rule does not apply to grand jury hearings. If a prosecutor does not receive an indictment from the grand jury, he or she may bring the same case before the grand jury an endless number of times.

And finally, one of the most important ways in which a grand jury hearing differs from a regular trial is that the prosecutor may subpoena anyone to testify before the grand jury. The prosecutor is not obligated to make a case for the relevance of the testimony. The subpoenaed witness may not bring a lawyer into the room; and if the witness refuses to testify, he or she can be found in contempt of court and imprisoned.

History of the Grand Jury

In his 1984 article, “The Improper Use of the Federal Grand Jury: An Instrument for the Internment of Political Activists,” Michael Deutsch (attorney for the People’s Law Office) says grand juries are a holdover from the British legal system, and were meant to serve as an independent body that would protect prosecuted individuals from arbitrary rulings by the government. However, according to Deutsch, it has been quite the opposite since the very beginning of America’s history.

In the nation’s early days, politicians like John Adams and Thomas Jefferson used grand jury hearings to indict their political enemies. During the Civil War, the Confederacy used grand juries to indict abolitionists. By the beginning of the 20th century, unionists and activists for workers’ rights became a favorite target.

The use of the grand jury hearing for investigative purposes became particularly pernicious, according to Deutsch, during the Cold War era. This can be attributed to the influence of Wisconsin Senator Joseph McCarthy and his House Committee on Un-American Activities; this is also when the act legalizing compulsory testimony was passed. Individuals affiliated with labor unions and left-wing political groups were targeted by these hearings. Under Richard Nixon, investigative grand jury hearings became so numerous and so infamous, Senator Edward M. Kennedy was moved to make the following statement:

“Over the past four years, under the present administration, we have witnessed the birth of a new breed of political animal — the kangaroo grand jury — spawned in a dark corner of the Department of Justice, nourished by an administration bent on twisting law enforcement to serve its own political ends, a dangerous modern form of Star Chamber secret inquisition that is trampling the rights of American citizens from coast to coast.”

Deutsch writes that after Nixon, grand jury hearings continued to target political dissidents in the ’80s, particularly those associated with the Puerto Rican liberation movement and the Black nationalist movement.

The current spate of subpoenas served throughout the Midwest follows this precedent. According to Deutsch in a November article published in Huffington Post, the use of the grand jury hearing to acquire intelligence has risen dramatically under Obama.

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