Criminal Defense for Civil Rights in Chicago

While we continued to represent criminal defendants during the 2000s, most of this representation was either in death penalty cases, cases related to civil rights violations, or cases where our client was prosecuted because of his or her political beliefs. One of our most important criminal cases during the past ten years was the defense of Muhammad Salah.

Mr. Salah, a Palestinian American man and naturalized U.S. citizen, was indicted in federal court in August 2004 for material support for terrorism, racketeering conspiracy and obstruction of justice for allegedly supporting Hamas and providing incomplete answers to an interrogatory in a civil suit.  The charges were based on a confession Mr. Salah allegedly gave in 1993 that was the result of over 80 days of confinement and torture at the hands of Israel’s secret police, the Shin Bet. Salah had been arrested by the Israeli military in January 1993 while traveling to provide funds to poverty-stricken Palestinians living in the Occupied Territories and refugees who had been driven into neighboring countries.  The coerced confession was used against him in a military tribunal in Israel, where he was convicted and spent almost five years in prison.  After his release from Israeli prison, he returned to the United States in 1997 with the label of “specially designated terrorist,” the only U.S. citizen so branded.  He was surveilled, followed by an FBI informant and targeted as part of an investigation into terrorism funding, which was dropped because of a lack of evidence.  However, in the wake of September 11, 2001, and in a blatantly political prosecution, the investigation was reactivated and Salah was indicted, with the announcement of the indictment made by Attorney General Ashcroft himself at a splashy press-conference, based on the same tortured confession that led to his imprisonment in Israel.

As part of the defense of Mr. Salah, in March of 2006, there was an unprecedented suppression hearing where we argued that Mr. Salah’s confession should be suppressed since it was the product of torture and that his arrest and interrogation in Israel did not comport with the U.S. Constitution and basic principles of International Law.  The government’s position was that the hearing would reveal confidential information and secrets of the State of Israel and that the U.S. must defer to whatever Israel determined confidential.  Ultimately, the judge agreed with the government and allowed the hearing to take place in a closed court room, with attorneys representing the Israeli government present.  Only two of Salah’s twelve interrogators testified, often refusing to answer questions, claiming confidentiality and numerous times throughout the hearing and at numerous times having ex parte meetings with the judge and prosecutor about information that was not disclosed to Salah or his attorneys.

The judge ruled against suppression and allowed the tortured confession to be used against Mr. Salah.  The trial began in October of 2006 and lasted over three months, with members of the Arab American and progressive community from the Chicagoland area regularly attending trial in large numbers.  We faced challenges in being able to present crucial evidence, since important witnesses to the Shin Bet interrogation were in Israel and the U.S. government was determining which of them would testify.  In addition, the judge refused to allow us to call significant witnesses, such as two Palestinian men who had been interrogated by the same team of agents who tortured Salah.  However, we were able to call human rights experts who testified about Israel’s pattern and practice of torture and the way that psychological and physical abuse causes unreliable confessions.  In February of 2007, after two weeks of deliberation, the jury acquitted Salah of the terrorism-related charges, finding him guilty of the much less serious obstruction count based on the incomplete interrogatory.  The community rallied in his support and we were able to collect over 600 letters on his behalf, which we submitted to the Court before sentencing.  The judge ended up sentencing him to 21 months in prison, significantly less than what the government was seeking.

Mr. Salah had a co-defendant, Dr. Abdelhaleem Ashqar, who faced similar charges and was represented by different counsel.  Dr. Ashqar was also acquitted of all conspiracy and terrorism charges, but convicted of an obstruction charge for refusing to testify before a grand jury.  The judge applied the terrorism-enhancement to his sentencing and sentenced him to 135 months (over 11 years).  When Dr. Ashqar’s lawyer died after conviction, our office took over his defense, unsuccessfully challenging his sentence in the Supreme Court, and subsequently through a writ of habeas corpus.

People’s Law Office also recently represented a “Green Scare” defendant, who was targeted by the government for his connection to environmentalist or animal rights causes.  In November of 2009, Scott DeMuth, a radical activist from Minneapolis, Minnesota was subpoenaed to testify before a federal grand jury in Davenport, Iowa that was investigating an Animal Liberation Front (ALF) action from 2004 at the University of Iowa where property was destroyed and laboratory animals were freed from captivity.  Although he had no knowledge of the University of Iowa action, DeMuth refused to testify against movements he ideologically supported and was held in civil contempt.  He was then indicted for “conspiracy to commit animal enterprise terrorism” for the incident in Iowa, despite the fact that he was a high school student living in Minnesota at the time.

DeMuth was charged under the Animal Enterprise Protection Act (AEPA), the pre-cursor to the Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act (AETA).  The primary evidence used against him were writings in his journal and on his computer which were seized during a raid of his home during the 2008 Republican National Convention.  In addition, the Assistant U.S. Attorney used DeMuth’s anarchist beliefs and the fact that he had supported political prisoners as evidence of his involvement in a conspiracy.

We filed motions to suppress evidence gathered from the raid of his home and several motions to dismiss the charges.  In September of 2010, following pre-trial hearings and on the eve of trial, the U.S. Attorney agreed to abandon all charges related to the University of Iowa action. In return, DeMuth pleaded guilty to a separate incident in Minnesota and received a six-month sentence.

Currently, we are also leading a coalition of lawyers representing anti-war and international solidarity activists, whose homes were raided in September of 2010.  They and others doing Palestine solidarity work were subpoenaed to a federal grand jury in Chicago.  All 23 people refused to collaborate with the grand jury and now await the possibility of indictments under the draconian “material support law” which makes it a crime to act in solidarity with groups who have been designated as foreign terrorists by the U.S. government.  This prosecution relies heavily on a recent holding by the United States Supreme Court, Holder v. The Humanitarian Law Project, which held that even First Amendment solidarity work can be the basis for violations of the material support law. We are continuing to counsel these activists and are awaiting possible indictments.


Early Days
The Murder of Fred Hampton
Government Surveillance
Representing the Panthers in Downstate Illinois
Attica New York Prison Riots
The Fred Hampton Murder Trial
Prisoner Rights Work
Puerto Rican Independence Movement and the Puerto Rican Community
Fred Hampton Appeal
George Jones Street Files and False Imprisonment
Representing Demonstrators, Protestors, and Activists
Puerto Rico Work Continues
Police Brutality and Torture
Continuing to Represent Demonstrators and Activists
The Attica Prison Civil Case
Continuing Work in Solidarity With Puerto Rico
Fighting the Death Penalty
Sexual Abuse Litigation and Illegal Strip Search
Back to the Supreme Court
The 1996 Democratic Convention
Policy and Practice Cases
False Arrests and Convictions
Continuing to Defend Dissent
Continuing the Fight for Justice in the Chicago Police Torture Cases
Criminal Defense for Civil Rights Abuses
Jail Suicide
Opposing the Criminalization of the LGBTQ Community
People’s Law Office and The National Lawyers Guild