Court voids portion of anti-terrorism law

1986 material-support ban ruled unconstitutional for danger to `innocents'

December 04, 2003|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

WASHINGTON - A federal appeals court ruled yesterday that key portions of an anti-terrorism law are unconstitutional because the law, relied on heavily by the Bush administration, risks ensnaring innocent humanitarians.

The ruling from the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco throws into doubt the administration's reliance on portions of a 1986 anti-terrorism law making it a crime to provide material support to groups designated as terrorists.

Since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, the material-support ban has become a favorite weapon of choice for the Justice Department in a host of terrorism cases, including the prosecutions of John Walker Lindh, an American who fought with the Taliban in Afghanistan; Lynne Stewart, the defense attorney accused of helping a client pass messages to terrorist associates; and terror suspects in Lackawanna, N.Y., Detroit and Portland, Ore.

But the 9th Circuit ruled that two key portions of the law were unconstitutional.

Ruling in a case involving two groups that do humanitarian and advocacy work on behalf of Kurds in Turkey and Tamils in Sri Lanka, a panel of the 9th Circuit court ruled 2-1 that the law failed to clearly require that a suspect knowingly provided support to a terrorist organization. As a result, the law poses "a danger of sweeping in its ambit moral innocents," the judges said.

Under the government's interpretation of the law, the court found, a person who sends a check to an orphanage in Sri Lanka run by a banned group or "a woman who buys cookies from a bake sale outside of her grocery store to support displaced Kurdish refugees" could face a lengthy prison sentence for supporting terrorists.

The court affirmed a preliminary ruling issued prior to the Sept. 11 attacks, finding that the material-support law's ban on providing "training" or "personnel" for terrorist groups was unconstitutionally vague and could deter protected free speech. The court said that recent efforts by the Justice Department to narrow the definition of those terms had fallen short, and it blocked the government from enforcing the provisions.

The Justice Department declined comment on the decision.

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