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Supreme Court ruling barring aid to terrorist groups: why some lament it

Humanitarian and peace organizations say their direct interaction with violent or terrorist groups is vital to intervention efforts. The Supreme Court decision Monday means they do it at their peril.

By Staff writer / June 21, 2010

The Supreme Court ruling on Monday has put international humanitarian and peace organizations on notice that any aid to a US-designated terrorist group could land them in an American prison.

Evan Vucci/AP/File



The US Supreme Court has put international humanitarian workers on notice that any assistance to a US-designated terrorist group could land them in an American prison.

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On Monday, the high court upheld a federal law that outlaws providing “material support” to any group on a State Department list of terrorist organizations.

The prohibition extends beyond knowingly facilitating illegal operations. The law – part of the USA Patriot Act – makes it a federal crime to provide any help or support to a terror group – even support designed to teach a violent group how to use legal and peaceful means to achieve political change.

Violators face up to 15 years in prison.

Organizations and individuals involved in international peace and humanitarian efforts expressed disappointment with Monday’s ruling.

“The ‘material support law’ – which is aimed at putting an end to terrorism – actually threatens our work and the work of many other peacemaking organizations that must interact directly with groups that have engaged in violence,” said former President Jimmy Carter, founder of the Carter Center.

“The vague language of the law leaves us wondering if we will be prosecuted for our work to promote peace and freedom,” he said.

The 36-page majority opinion, written by Chief Justice John Roberts, says that Congress intended to establish a broad prohibition against any assistance to terrorist organizations. To prove a violation, prosecutors must show that the individual providing the help or support knew the receiving group was on the US terror list or was an organization that had engaged in terrorist activities.

Justice Stephen Breyer and two other justices dissented, arguing that the statute’s scope was narrower than the majority had found. The law should apply only when the assistance facilitates an illegal act by a terrorist group, Justice Breyer wrote.

“We are deeply disappointed,” said David Cole, a Georgetown University law professor who argued the case at the high court on behalf of a group of humanitarian workers.