US Court ruling makes conviction difficult under 'terrorism' law

[TamilNet, Thursday, 04 December 2003, 11:35 GMT]
San Francisco based U.S Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit ruled Wednesday that the United States Government "cannot convict groups of individuals of violating a federal law against 'material support' for terrorist organizations unless it proves beyond a reasonable doubt that they knew the organizations were involved in terrorist activity," The Washington Post reported in its Thursday edition. The case was brought by the Center for Constitutional Rights on behalf of a human rights organization in Los Angeles and several groups of Sri Lankan Tamils in the U.S.

"Without the knowledge requirement," Judge Harry Pregerson wrote for the panel majority, "a person who simply sends a check to a school or orphanage run by [a U.S.-designated terrorist group] could be convicted under the statute, even if that individual is not aware of the [group's] designation or of any unlawful activities undertaken by the [group]," the paper reported.

The ruling also reaffirmed a decision by the same court barring the government from enforcing the 1996 law's prohibitions against providing "personnel" and "training" to designated terrorist groups. The terms are too ill-defined to provide adequate notice of precisely what is banned, and are thus unconstitutional, the 9th Circuit ruled, the Post said.

David Cole, a Georgetown University law professor and lawyer with the Center for Constitutional Rights who argued the case, was quoted by the POst as saying, "This decision will mitigate the substantial chilling effect that this statute has cast over those who seek to provide humanitarian aid to conflict-ridden areas."

The suit was brought in March 1998 by the CCR on behalf of the the plaintiffs where the plaintiffs asked the court to declare that the material support statute, 18 U.S.C. 2339B, violates the First Amendment insofar as it criminalizes the provision of such support.

Judge Audrey Collins rejected plaintiffs' argument that the ban on material support violates the First Amendment insofar as it criminalizes the provision of cash and humanitarian aid that is solely intended to further the lawful purposes of a designated organization. However, the Judge agreed with plaintiffs that the law is unconstitutionally vague to the extent that it criminalizes the provision of material support in the form of "personnel" and "training."

She found that these provisions "d[id] not . . . appear to allow persons of ordinary intelligence to determine what type of training or provision of personnel is prohibited" and, furthermore, "appeared to prohibit activity protected by the First Amendment -- distributing literature and information and training others to engage in advocacy."

She then issued a narrowly tailored preliminary injunction barring the government from prosecuting any of the plaintiffs in the suit or any members of the organizational plaintiffs for providing "personnel" or "training" to the LTTE.

Judge Collins' preliminary injunction was appealed to the Ninth Circuit, which affirmed it in March 2000. Her summary judgment order was reviewed by the Ninth Circuit, which heard oral argument on March 5, 2003, the ruling of which was made yesterday.


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