The only United States citizen residing in the U.S. designated as a “terrorist” by the Department of Treasury filed suit today in federal court to challenge as unconstitutional the onerous restrictions imposed on him by that designation for the past 17 years. Under the restrictions, which bar virtually all economic transactions, even those necessary for survival, Muhammad Salah is not permitted to get a job, pay rent or a mortgage, pay for his children’s education, obtain medical care or even buy a loaf of bread without first obtaining approval from the Treasury Department.
The lawsuit, filed by a team of attorneys from the Center for Constitutional Rights, the People’s Law Office, and the firm of Hughes Socol Piers Resnick & Dym, Ltd., contends that the restrictions – which fundamentally impede Mr. Salah’s ability to function in society – violate his First and Fifth Amendment rights. The American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee (ADC) and the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC) have joined the suit to challenge the designation’s infringement of their First Amendment rights. The designation makes it a crime for them even to speak out in coordination with Mr. Salah to object to his treatment.
“These indefinite restrictions are more sweeping than we impose on many convicted criminals, yet Mr. Salah was not even afforded a trial,” said David Cole, a professor at Georgetown Law and cooperating attorney with the Center for Constitutional Rights, who has successfully challenged the constitutionality of OFAC’s designation process in two other cases. “This is the modern-day equivalent of the Scarlet Letter. Mr. Salah cannot live without the discretionary approval of the Treasury Department. His friends and community cannot even offer him a sandwich without running afoul of the law.”
The lawsuit stems from events in 1995, when Mr. Salah was classified by the Treasury Department as a “specially designated terrorist,” under Executive Order 12947, signed by then President Bill Clinton and designed to target groups and individuals considered to be interfering with theMiddle Eastpeace process.
Mr. Salah received no notice of any charges against him, nor any opportunity to defend himself. There was no trial or hearing of any kind. In fact, Mr. Salah and his family only learned of the imposition of the designation when Mr. Salah’s wife, Maryam, attempted to withdraw funds from her bank account and was told that the account was frozen at theU.S.government’s direction. The designation runs to perpetuity and, but for this litigation, there is no way to overturn the arbitrary restrictions they impose on Mr. Salah’s basic life activities.
At the time of the Treasury designation, Mr. Salah was incarcerated in an Israeli military prison, charged by an Israeli military court with providing support to Hamas in the early 1990s. At the time, no law barred Americans from supporting Hamas. Following 55 days of intense interrogation, including sleep deprivation and physical brutality, Mr. Salah pled guilty to the charge and entered into a plea agreement. He was released in 1997 and returned to his home in theUnited States.
When, in 2005, theU.S.government charged Mr. Salah in a criminal trial with supporting Hamas, a jury acquitted him. Despite his acquittal, his designation as a “specially designated terrorist” remained.
Matthew Piers, who has represented Mr. Salah since shortly after his designation, said, “Since he was released by the Israeli military justice system, Mr. Salah has been made to suffer in a manner that is contrary to our constitutional principles and completely unjustified by anything he has ever been accused of, let alone found to have done. His continuing mistreatment is a stain of the fabric of our democracy.”
The AFSC and the ADC join the suit because the designation severely restricts their ability to support Mr. Salah, thus barring them from exercising their First Amendment rights to criticize the unfairness to Mr. Salah.