Provision that Criminalizes Conflict Resolution Training Ignored by Senate Committee

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Date: 
October 16, 2009
Author: 
Suraj K. Sazawal

As went Feingold and Durbin’s JUSTICE Act so too did a provision that encourages conflict resolution training and human rights advocacy. Included in the rejected bill was language that would have amended the material support statute to require specific intent to further an organization’s unlawful activities before imposing criminal liability. Prosecution under the PATRIOT Act does not require any proof that the defendant intended to further any act of violence by the foreign organization. The bill that the Committee voted on and passed did not amend the material support statute.
 
Quickly passed in the weeks after the attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, the Patriot Act amended the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996 (ADEPA), making "expert advice and assistance" a crime punishable by a 10- to 15-year prison sentence. 120 individuals or organizations have faced federal "material support" cases since the law passed in 2001, but only half of those cases result in successful prosecutions.
 
The law has frightened groups who seek to aid the thousands of people caught in the middle of a civil war or national catastrophe. For instance, when government forces and the Tamil Tigers in Sri Lanka were engaged in daily fighting, a group of American physicians wanted "to provide their expert medical advice on how to address the shortage of medical facilities and trained physicians" in refugee camps located in Tiger controlled regions, but were “afraid to do so because they fear prosecution for providing material support."
 
The omission by the Committee to change the statute is seen as a mistake by some experts. David Cole, a Georgetown University law professor said, "We don't make the country safer by criminalizing those who advocate nonviolent means for resolving disputes. Congress can and should draw a clear line between assistance that further terrorism and that which does not.”