Muzzled Voices

A federal court decision forces Voices in the Wilderness to disband

Erin Polgreen

Bert Sacks and Phil Steger at the bedside of Kamal, an Iraqi child with leukemia. Kamal died three days later.

After 10 years of delegations, peace activism and non-violent protest, Chicago-based Voices in the Wilderness (VitW) was silenced on August 12, when a federal judge ordered the group to pay a $20,000 civil penalty for delivering medical supplies to Iraq without a permit. 

Founded in 1995, VitW sought to openly violate and protest the economic sanctions against Iraq. The group spearheaded more than 70 delegations to the country, bringing children’s antibiotics, blood bags and over-the-counter medications to people in need, despite numerous warnings from the Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC), the enforcement arm of the U.S. Department of Treasury.

The judge’s decision concluded an eight year battle over charges of sanction violations. The dispute entered the courts in 2002 after VitW’s continued refusal to adhere to the sanctions. At this point, OFAC imposed a $20,000 civil penalty. In place of paying the penalty, the group submitted 20,000 Iraqi dinar – about $13.61.

We wanted to show what little worth the dinar [had] under sanctions,” says the group’s founder and co-coordinator Kathy Kelly. 

The August ruling annulled a counter-claim filed by VitW on September 26, 2003, which argued that the sanctions did not apply because the group was involved in humanitarian acts – even though they could have applied for permits to make the deliveries legal.

Other groups were working through government channels and [the deliveries] would be delayed for two to three years,” says Danny Muller, who co-coordinated delegations and protest activities for VitW from 1998 to 2004. We didn’t want to wait.”

The lawsuit was further complicated because VitW is not a legal entity. Though the group is considered an NGO, it has never filed any paperwork with the government to declare itself. We are a group of committed individuals,” says Kelly. Legally speaking, we don’t exist.”

The courts weren’t swayed by that argument. While unable to comment on specific penalties levied against VitW or other individuals, Molly Millerwise, a spokesperson from the U. S. Department of Treasury says, Our economic and trade-based sanctions are in place because of the national security or economy threat the target poses towards the United States and the American people. It is the responsibility of all U.S. persons to abide by U.S. law, and those choosing to violate the sanctions may face civil and criminal penalties.”

But during several of their court hearings, VitW repeatedly asked why humanitarian organizations were prosecuted while companies that broke sanctions for profit were not fined or penalized. It’s incredible that [OFAC] has pursued fining a relatively small number of people, but companies are untouched,” says Jeff Severs Guntzel, who traveled to Iraq with eight VitW delegations from 1998 to 2001.

Two of those companies include Texas-based BayOil and Connecticut-based Odin Marine, Inc. In an open letter to Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.), chair of the U.S. Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations on Iraqi Oil Allocations, Kelly decried the actions of these companies and asked why they hadn’t been penalized while humanitarian organizations were. OFAC told your Subcommittee … that it was up to the U.N., not the U.S., to police compliance with sanctions,” wrote Kelly. OFAC seems to have had a different point of view regarding humanitarian groups that traveled to Iraq.”

Severs Guntzel called the ruling ridiculous, given all we know about the conditions of Iraqis under sanctions.” A typical delegation, according to Severs Guntzel, would bring medicine to the country, tour the most need-affected areas of Baghdad, meet with U.N. and U.S. officials, and travel into the countryside in an attempt to take in Iraq, as best we could, under a dictatorship.”

Those delegations continued through the invasion of Iraq but stopped in early 2004 when the situation on the ground made it too dangerous for VitW to continue its work. After members of NGOs that VitW worked with were abducted and, in some cases, killed, the group pulled its members out of Iraq in March 2004 and refocused its efforts on peace activism and education in the United States.

Those efforts have met a roadblock. Because the court’s ruling gave authorization for the collection of the civil penalty, VitW decided to freeze its own bank account and is no longer accepting any donations made out to Voices in the Wilderness.” Kelly says the group took these measures to keep funds donated for humanitarian purposes from being used to support an administration she calls inhumane and immoral.”

We are sending any checks back un-cashed,” says Kelly. 

Several individuals associated with the group have also been charged with civil penalties for travel-related” transactions. In 1998, VitW and several individuals received a prepenalty notice” from OFAC that outlined $160,000 of penalties that could be charged against the group and four other delegates.

Bert Sacks, a retired engineer from Seattle, was penalized $10,000 in 2002 for bringing $40,000 worth of medical supplies to Iraq in 1997. Sacks refused to pay, and instead raised $10,000 for humanitarian purposes in one week. He also filed suit against the government, asking for a reversal on the grounds that the economic sanctions were a violation of the Geneva Convention and the Genocide Convention. A federal judge upheld the fine, but Sacks has appealed to the 9th District Appellate Courts.

A policy that leads to the deaths of hundreds of thousands of children is criminal,” says Sacks.

While no delegations are currently planned, VitW will continue to work with the Iraqi people under their new name, Voices for Creative Nonviolence. The group has several protest activities planned, including a hunger strike protesting IMF and World Bank policies and starting a language immersion program in Jordan for students. 

Despite the risk of up to 12 years in prison, Kelly says that VitW will not pay one penny or dime” of the civil penalty in a conscientious objection to the utterly ruthless policies of war criminals in power.”

Before coming to The Media Consortium in February 2008, Erin was an Associate Publisher for In These Times, where she managed advertising, marketing and outreach. Erin began working with In These Times as an editorial intern in June 2005. That August, she joined the staff as Advertising and Marketing Coordinator and was promoted to Associate Publisher in February 2007. From August 2004 through May 2005, Erin served with City Year Chicago, an Americorps program. As a Senior Corps member, she co-led a team of literacy tutors at an elementary school on the West side of Chicago. Erin graduated with departmental honors and a degree in English from Webster University in May 2004.
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