Prosecution at its obsessive worst

Anthony Lewis

September 21, 1993|By Anthony Lewis

JANET Reno has attracted remarkable public support as attorney general because she is straight. She calls them as she sees them, not hesitating to challenge such shibboleths as mandatory sentences and drug law enforcement methods.

Ms. Reno's attention could be usefully directed now at a six-year-old case that I think shows the prosecutorial mind at its obsessive worst. The Immigration and Naturalization Service is trying to push a terrorism clause in the law beyond its words -- and perhaps beyond the Constitution -- in order to deport two Palestinians who have not engaged in terrorism.

The case is especially dubious now because of the agreement between Israel and the PLO. President Clinton and other leaders urged support for the PLO effort at governance in Gaza and Jericho. But in the INS view of the law, an alien resident in this country who gave such support would be deportable.

Khader Hamide and Michel Shehadeh have lived in the United States for many years. In 1987, in Los Angeles, INS agents arrested them, put them in shackles and told the press they were "terrorists."

But they were not charged with committing any terrorism. In the deportation proceedings that have dragged on since then they were accused, rather, of raising money for a radical PLO faction, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine.

The PFLP has indeed carried out terrorist acts. But like many other organizations -- Nelson Mandela's African National Congress, for example -- it has been both a guerrilla and a political group.

The two say they supported only lawful activities, such as clinics in the West Bank. And they have what seems to be conclusive testimony that they have not engaged in violent acts. In 1987 Judge William Webster, then director of the FBI, told Congress:

"The individuals who were arrested in California had not been found to have engaged themselves in terroristic activities. . . . If (they) had been U.S. citizens, there would not have been a basis for their arrest."

How, then, does the INS justify the claim that they should be deported? It relies on a clause in a 1990 Immigration Act that makes aliens deportable if they give "material support to any individual, organization or government in conducting a terrorist activity at any time."

To be grounds for deportation, then, the support must be for someone "in conducting a terrorist activity." But in the teeth of those words, as it seems to me, the INS says it can deport aliens who gave money to an organization for the most peaceful purpose if that organization had ever conducted a terrorist action.

That interpretation of the law is described as distorted and dangerous in a letter that 60 professors of immigration law have written to Attorney General Reno. They point out that the purpose of the 1990 law was to repeal the political clauses of the old McCarran-Walter Act. Yet here, they say, the INS would reintroduce the concept of guilt by association.

Giving support to terrorism is a crime in this country. Anyone who aids terrorism, citizen or alien, should be prosecuted. But it is lawful -- and a right under the First Amendment -- to support peaceful activities by even a despised group.

The deportation proceeding is out of sync, too, with the PLO-Israel rapprochement and American policy toward it. In the INS view, any alien who contributed to the PLO to build housing in Gaza now would be deportable. The good purpose would not matter, because the PLO has in the past committed terrorism.

But the case has dangerous implications far beyond the Palestinian context. A Nicaraguan resident in this country who gave money to the contras for a hospital would be deportable. So would a South African exile who contributed to Nelson Mandela's recent speaking tour.

A year ago I spoke with a Bush administration assistant attorney general, Stuart Gerson, about the case. He said, "We'll try to show that they materially aided a terrorist cause. If we don't, we should lose."

The only way the INS has tried to meet that test is by defining "terrorist cause" beyond common sense and the language of the statute. It is time for the Justice Department -- for Attorney General Reno -- to put an end to this perversion of justice.

Anthony Lewis is a columnist for the New York Times.

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