A Fine Mess

The cost of civil disobedience

Ana Hristova

Voices in the Wilderness argues that sanctions have caused unnecessary deaths of Iraqi civilians.
It has been almost four months since President George W. Bush declared an end to major military operations in Iraq. But it seems that another conflict, one that started much earlier, has emerged about the region.

An undisclosed number of individuals and groups have started receiving notices of penalties for violating the U.S. embargo that prohibits travel and imposes regulations on import and export with the war-torn country.

In late July, a summons arrived at the office of Voices in the Wilderness (VitW), notifying the group that the government seeks to collect $20,000 in fines for two 1998 violations of sanctions against unlicensed import of humanitarian aid. This is not the first penalty imposed on the organization. In 1998, VitW was fined $120,000 and four of its member received individual fines of $10,000.

Under sanctions imposed in 1990 by President George Bush and extended by President George W. Bush through August 2004, it is illegal to export any goods or technology to Iraq. According to Iraqi Sanctions Regulations, persons and organizations determined by the Secretary of the Treasury to be doing so have been treated as if they were the government of Iraq itself. Criminal penalties range up to 12 years in prison and $1,000,000 in fines, plus late fees and interest.

While William P. Quigley, who legally represents VitW, has requested an extension of the 20-day response time frame required by the government, Kathy Kelly, a founder of the organization and three-time Nobel Peace Prize nominee, is not wasting time calculating the money owed.

“We will never pay the penalty,” says Kelly, who has traveled to Iraq about 20 times since the organization started sending delegations in 1996. “We believe that it is wrongful to create laws that regulate people’s ability to extend the hand of friendship to other people, particularly in a situation where following bombardments of Iraqi infrastructure, we imposed the most inhumane state of seizure in modern history.”

Kelly, who was packing for another trip to Iraq with fellow members John Farrell from Chicago, Ed Kinaue from Syracuse and Cathy Breen from New York, is mystified by the government’s motives.

“We speculated about whether or not this was just the bureaucracy taking its course but when they went after the human shields as well, they made us wonder if there wasn’t some kind of a political motivation to create intimidation,” she said.

Instead of intimidation, VitW’s run-ins with the government have created positive publicity that has helped the organization’s outreach and education programs. The organization issued a call for 20,000 “voices of support” that generated 6,300 signatures in the first week alone. Several of those days included the blackouts in the Northeast. In addition, more than 50 people have sent letters to the Office of Foreign Assets Control.

“Enforcement actions are pretty routine,” says Treasury spokesman Taylor Griffin. “Freedom of speech is a cornerstone of American democracy, but which law to obey or ignore is not a privilege.” VitW is the only organization, according to Griffin, that is facing legal actions for violating the Iraqi sanctions. In addition, the Treasury Department has contacted a handful of individuals, including human shields, with a request for more details about their trips to the country. “Prison time is not a collection mechanism,” he added. “In none of those cases criminal measures are being considered.”

“Whatever the government motives, they are entitled to enforce the law,” says Douglass W. Cassel Jr., director of the Center for International Human Rights at Northwestern University. “The risk of knowingly engaging in civil disobedience is that the government will enforce its law, and no one who traveled to Iraq should now be surprised by the consequences.”

Farrell, who was just about to leave for Iraq for the first time, is not concerned about retribution. According to him, breaking an unjust law is not a violation because he doesn’t consider it a law. “What concerns me more is the hypocrisy that the government would spend its resources and time to try to prosecute [VitW] for delivering small amounts of humanitarian aid. At the same time they haven’t given reparations to the families of the civilians who were killed.”

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