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N.Y. Judge Green-Lights Trial for Terrorism Case

N.Y. Judge Green-Lights Trial for Terrorism Case Involving Group Working With U.S. Military

A federal judge in Brooklyn has upheld a terrorism prosecution against a U.S. citizen working for a group violently opposed to the Iranian government.

Zeinab Taleb-Jedi had argued that her indictment for providing material support to a foreign terrorist organization was outrageous because the group to which she belongs, the People’s Mojahedin Organization of Iran (PMOI), has been working with the U.S. military in Iraq.

But such are the fortunes of war, Eastern District of New York Judge Brian M. Cogan ruled in United States v. Taleb-Jedi, 06 cr. 652.

"Foreign relations generally and specifically during a time of war are not black and white, and the PMOI need not be viewed as a monolithic entity," the judge wrote. "It is perfectly permissible for the military to forge alliances with those in the PMOI with whom it wants to deal, while the Government deters through prosecution other individuals, particularly United States citizens, from rendering material support to the organization on their own."

Cogan observed that war itself is an "outrageous, but as determined by other branches of government, sometimes necessary undertaking."

Taleb-Jedi, who was born in Iran, came to the United States in 1978 and became a citizen in 1996. She worked for PMOI in America, then went to Iraq in 1999 to work at the group’s base. Among her activities were teaching English, translating documents and serving as a member of PMOI’s political department.

The U.S. State Department designated PMOI a foreign terrorist organization (listed as "Mujahedin-e Khalq Organization") in 1997, based on its involvement with assassinations and other activities targeting the Iranian government. Questioned by the Federal Bureau of Investigation after the U.S. invasion of Iraq, Taleb-Jedi was arrested and charged with providing material support to the group on her return to the United States in 2006.

In addition to arguing that the prosecution should be thrown out, Taleb-Jedi also challenged her indictment on First Amendment grounds, claiming PMOI is not a terrorist organization and that she is entitled to be a member of it.

The judge said any claim that PMOI was not a terrorist organization was complicated by the group’s own acknowledgement of its involvement in assassinations and other violent activities. Moreover, he said, the group’s designation by the State Department fell within the discretion accorded the executive branch in matters of national security.

The rest of her First Amendment challenge failed because, according to the prosecution, she was an employee of PMOI rather than a mere supporter, the judge said. Freedom of speech and association, he said, did not extend to actively working on a terrorist group’s behalf, even if her duties were nonviolent.

The judge noted that many terrorist groups simultaneously engaged in education and social welfare programs. But he said, even if Taleb-Jedi’s work was in a benign area, "she may be freeing up or enabling another person to take part in something far more nefarious."

However, Cogan added, if Taleb-Jedi could advance evidence at trial showing that her participation in PMOI was more passive or explicitly nonviolent in nature, an acquittal might be warranted. For instance, he noted, if her English lessons were solely to help the group advocate before the United Nations, such conduct might not constitute material support.

Taleb-Jedi was represented by Justine Harris of Federal Defenders. In a statement, Harris said she and her client were eager to take the case before a jury.

"Ultimate resolution of many of the legal issues will depend on whether the government can sustain its allegations at trial," said Harris. "At the close of the evidence, we will all have to revisit the substantial First Amendment and Due Process issues at stake."

The government was represented by Eileen M. Decker, of the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Central District of California, as well as Eastern District of New York Assistant U.S. Attorney Kellie T. Currie.

Anthony Lin    New York Law Journal 

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