Protests Across Country of FBI Raids of Palestinian and Colombian Activists

News & Politics

Today, citizens across the country are joining together to protest the ongoing FBI raids and subpoenas of Palestinian and Colombian solidarity activists.  Nine of the 23 targeted thus far have been called to testify today in front of a grand jury in Chicago, IL. 

Dating back to September, peace activists nation-wide have been subjected to home raids and FBI questioning as part of an ongoing investigation.  Though no charges have been made, those called to testify Tuesday are being questioned for possibly providing material support to groups identified by the US government as terrorist organizations. In Summer 2010, to the objection of numerous humanitarian groups, the Supreme Court ruled that such support could include providing information on how to conduct peaceful protests and advocating against violence. 

Patrick Fitzgerald, US Attorney for the Northern District of Illinois, is heading the FBI probe that many argue is in direct violation of citizens’ right to assembly. 

Fitzgerald, known as a “terrorist hunter” by some, has marketed his career around taking down the bad guy.  This is, after all, the same man who put I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby behind bars and led the case against former Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich.  Taking a closer look at his past, however, reveals some indications that Fitzgerald may not always be out to protect the public. 

Nominated by George W. Bush to take on the role of US Attorney of Illinois not long after the 9/11 attacks, Fitzgerald began developing a reputation early on in his career for trying foreign terrorists.  As an Assistant US Attorney in New York City, Fitzgerald served as the prosecutor against the twelve charged in the 1993 World Trade Center bombing. Fitzgerald became the National Security Coordinator for the Office of the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York in 1996, where he served as one of the prosecutors investigating Osama bin Laden. 

These feats, however, were met with great criticism by some, including journalist Peter Lance, who in his book, Triple Cross, contends that Fitzgerald ignored information that may have suggested a possible Al Qaeda presence in New York prior to September 11, 2001.  Lance’s accusation was met with fierce response by Fitzgerald, who threatened publisher HarperCollins with a lawsuit following the book’s release, saying in one letter, "To put it plain and simple, if in fact you publish the book this month and it defames me or casts me in a false light, HarperCollins will be sued." 

This was not Fitzgerald’s first stab at censoring journalists.  During the Valerie Plame investigation that ultimately led to Libby’s imprisonment, Fitzgerald was the prosecutor responsible for New York Times reporter Judith Miller’s sentence of several months in prison for contempt as a result of her refusal to testify before a grand jury and reveal sources in the CIA leak. 

But perhaps the most remarkable of Fitzgerald’s cases was that against Abdelhaleem Ashqar.  Ashqar, along with fellow Palestinian-American Mohammad Salah, was charged with racketeering conspiracy related to Hamas. The case was certainly a high-profile one for Fitzgerald to take on and possibly one way to clear his name following Lance’s release of Triple Cross the year before.  In a surprising turn of events, the star witness for the prosecution was none other than Judith Miller, fresh from her prison release and seemingly ready to hand over whatever information (or speculation) Fitzgerald wanted from her (she also ended up testifying for Fitzgerald in the Scooter Libby case).   Miller’s appearance served primarily to discount Salah’s accusation of being tortured while interrogated by Israeli officials several years prior, to which she was present for.  The trial was not entirely a success for Fitzgerald, as the charges against the two were eventually dropped.  In spite of be acquitted, however, Abdelhaleem Ashqar – like Miller – was charged with contempt for refusing to provide names of Palestinians involved in liberation efforts.  Unlike Miller’s 85-day sentence, Ashqar is currently serving 135-months for refusing to testify in front of a grand jury, one of the longest sentences for contempt ever given. 

The US government has a long history of abusing the grand jury process and using it against those who object to US policies.  A report from Electronic Intifada explains:

A grand jury, no longer in use anywhere outside the US, is an investigative tool that allows the government to compel citizens to testify even if they are not suspected of any crime. The US government has historically abused the grand jury to intern slavery abolitionists during the pre-Civil War era, African American community leaders during the Reconstruction period, labor activists organizing for an eight-hour work day, civil rights organizers and in recent decades, Puerto Rico independence advocates.

Now, thanks to Fitzgerald, the same tactic is being used to target Palestinian and Colombian solidarity activists.

Michael Deutsch, the attorney representing those subpoenaed in Chicago, is quite familiar with Fitzgerald’s campaign of repression.  Deutsch served as Salah’s attorney during the 2007 trial and is currently representing Ashqar, attempting to have his sentence reduced.  On Fitzgerald’s methods, Deutsch remarks, “he’s a bulldog prosecutor and one of his areas of focus is going after what the government would characterize as support for terrorism. I don’t think he sees the line between people who support political movements and advocacy and the rights of them to associate and to even advocate for unpopular – unpopular in the US – movements.” Deutsch makes sure to stress that Fitzgerald’s efforts should not be viewed as an individual vendetta against those being investigated.  Rather, it appears that he’s merely the public face of an ongoing attempt by the government to silence those who seek to make public some of the cruel foreign policies supported by the United States. Deutsch explains, “[Government officials] are essentially going after political activists who are advocating and associating and supporting the struggles in countries where the US doesn’t particularly want the real story coming out.”

Now, the activists targeted in Fitzgerald’s most recent investigation are beginning to express concern that their outcome may be similar to that of Ashqar’s.  Jess Sundin, one of those originally subpoenaed in Minneapolis and an organizer for the Committee to Stop FBI Repression explains, “[Fitzgerald] is a prosecutor who is a careerist and ambitious…I think he thought that he could take a step up in his career by taking Ashqar down.  We want to make it difficult for him to put [the newly subpoenaed activists] in the position of Ashqar.”

One of the ways to accomplish this, Sundin explains, is by making the public more aware of these government efforts to silence dissent. “An attack on the Palestinian movement in particular is really an attack on progressive movements more broadly,” she explains.  Thus, the Committee to Stop FBI Repression has called for nation-wide protests today to coincide with the grand jury summons of the nine Chicago-based activists.  Demonstrations are set to take place in 46 cities across the country and in three locations outside the US. 

What happens in this investigation after today remains to be seen.  None of the activists subpoenaed have been offered immunity thus far, and as such cannot be charged with contempt for refusing to testify.  Sundin, however, maintains that prosecutors have made it clear that they do intend to pursue trials against the targeted activists.  Deutsch elucidates that this case is far from over as well, remarking, “we don’t know yet who is going to be given immunity and required to testify or go to jail, but if [prosecutors – e.g. Fitzgerald] do it with a heavy hand, there are going to be a lot of people that are going to be going to jail for civil contempt.”

Patrick Fitzgerald’s office declined to provide a comment for this article. 

Click here to find out more information on the organized protests happening today.

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