National Catholic Reporter
The Independent Newsweekly
Issue Date:  August 29, 2003

Kathy Kelly, cofounder of Voices in the Wilderness
-- Yarka Vendrinska/Picture Desk
Group faces $20,000 fine for Iraq aid

U.S. government sues Voices in Wilderness for breaking sanctions


Voices in the Wilderness, a Chicago-based group that has long protested the sanctions against Iraq and, more recently, the invasion of and occupation of that country, has been sued by the Justice Department for $20,000.

The fine is being assessed against the group for violating the Iraqi Sanctions Regulations enforced under the international Emergency Economic Powers Act, which prohibited the delivery of goods and services to Iraq except under special license of the U.S. Office of Foreign Assets Control. Iraq was placed under severe sanctions by both the United States and the United Nations following the 1991 Gulf War. The United Nations sanctions were lifted following the fall of Saddam Hussein’s government. U.S. prohibitions against travel to Iraq are still in place.

In a letter to Attorney General John Ashcroft responding to the suit, Voices in the Wilderness explained that the group during the past seven years had “organized more than 65 delegations to Iraq made up of teachers, veterans, social workers, artists, health care professionals, tradespeople and people of faith. Many of these delegates carried symbolic amounts of medicine as an act of civil disobedience against the injustice of the economic sanctions; they then returned to the United States to tell about the brutalizing effects of the sanctions, magnified by the U.S. bombing of the Iraqi civilian infrastructure during the Gulf War.”

Kathy Kelly, cofounder of the organization, said, “Voices will not pay the fine, and we don’t want anyone else to pay the fine for us.”

The group is asking supporters to go to its Web site to sign the letter to Ashcroft in an effort to gather 20,000 signatures.

The government, in its summons, notes that as early as January 1996, Voices sent a letter to then-Attorney General Janet Reno informing the government of its intent to deliver medical supplies without applying for a license. The complaint states that on several occasions, Voices in the Wilderness delivered medical supplies to Iraq and that it continues on its Web site to raise money for medical supplies and to state its resistance to penalties imposed by the government.

Attorney William Quigley, professor and dean of the Gillis Poverty Law Center at Loyola University in New Orleans and recipient of the 2003 Pax Christi Teacher of Peace award, wrote, “In every phase of this matter, we must never allow the government to obscure the key point that the sanctions imposed on the people of Iraq caused the deaths of over 500,000 children under the age of 5 and the deaths of hundreds of thousands of others.” In a letter posted on the Voices Web site, he continued, “No case, no fine and no argument can ever be allowed to take our focus off of our sisters and brothers in Iraq.”

Quigley said that in court, he would argue that “taking medicines to the people of Iraq does not appear to even be illegal” since neither the law nor executive orders prohibited taking humanitarian aid to Iraq. The law, however, required a special license to do so. Voices refused to seek a license because such action would imply an agreement with the sanctions, which the group considered illegal.

Quigley also argues that the government action violates the group’s constitutional protections of free speech, political action and exercise of religion.

“The timing and focus of this prosecution gives rise to serious questions about the constitutionality of the actions of those who would try to fine people for providing humanitarian aid to the people of Iraq and we will specifically reserve the right to take discovery and challenge the selective prosecution” of Voices in the Wilderness, he wrote.

Kelly, who was in Baghdad during the most recent bombing, said Aug. 21 that she was returning to Iraq for several weeks. She plans to return to the United States on Sept. 11.

“We feel stubborn about the idea that you don’t let war sever bonds between people,” she said. Her return, she said, will allow her to reconnect with people she has met over her years of travel to Iraq.

On the legal front, Quigley said Voices has received an extension from the court and is required to respond to the suit by Sept. 17.

National Catholic Reporter, August 29, 2003

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