by Michael Tarm
CHICAGO – Anti-war activists whose homes or offices were raided as part of an FBI terrorism funding investigation will refuse to testify before a grand jury as ordered, in a show of defiance that could land them in jail.
Attorneys for the 14 activists called to testify have coordinated their responses since the Sept. 24 raids and have agreed their clients won’t testify, Melinda Power, an attorney for a Chicago couple whose home was searched, said Tuesday. Agents searched seven homes and one office in Minneapolis and Chicago.
“They feel grand juries are now, and have historically been, a tool of harassment against activists”, Power said.
Some of the anti-war activists won’t testify because they don’t want to be complicit in what they see as an attempt to stifle freedom of speech and assembly, said Jess Sundin, whose Minnesota home was raided.
“We feel like the reason we’re being called and we’re being looked into is because of our very legitimate and constitutionally protected work in the anti-war movement,” she said.
About 50 peace activists protested Tuesday outside of the Dirksen Federal Building in Chicago, where the grand jury was to convene.
“We will not be silent,” Stephanie Weiner told protesters. She and her husband, Joe Iosbaker, were the two activists whose home was raided in Chicago.
Some subpoenas ordered activists to appear before Oct. 5. Sundin, who was subpoenaed to appear on Oct. 12, said activists sent separate letters to prosecutors indicating they do not intend to testify.
Randall Samborn, a spokesman for the U.S. Attorney’s office in Chicago, declined to comment about the case.
Some legal observers say the activists could go to jail.
“There’s no chance prosecutors will just let it slide if they keep refusing,” said Gal Pissetzky, a Chicago attorney with no link to the case.
As a next step, the government could reissue subpoenas – possibly this time with an offer of immunity. If the activists decline to appear then, a judge could hold them in contempt.
A key issue is whether any of the activists are targets of prosecutors or whether prosecutors merely consider them witnesses against another primary target.
Just after the raids, FBI spokesman Steve Warfield said the bureau was seeking evidence related to “activities concerning the material support of terrorism.”
But Sundin said no one has told activists who is or isn’t the focus of the investigation. She said that puts them all in jeopardy of self-incrimination, she said.
“It’s just you, and the prosecutor and the jury (at the grand jury proceedings),” Sundin said. “So it is a very precarious situation for anyone to put themselves in.”
Meredith Aby, a Minnesotan who was subpoenaed to testify Tuesday but did not make the trip to Chicago, also said the grand-jury process was unfair.
“I think they are an incredibly repressive and undemocratic tactic,” she said.
Someone who is a target can refuse to testify under their Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination without risking a contempt charge, Pissetzky said. If they are granted immunity, however, a grand jury witness is required to answer questions, he said.
Activists who have spoken with reporters have denied giving money to terrorist groups.
The homes of two other longtime Minneapolis anti-war activists, Mick Kelly and Meredith Aby, were also among those searched last month.
The warrant for Kelly’s home sought evidence on travel he did as part of his work for the Freedom Road Socialist Organization and information on any travel to Colombia, the Palestinian territories, Jordan, Syria or Israel.
Two groups use the name Freedom Road Socialist Organization, one based in Chicago and one in New York. They split several years ago, and the New York group said it was not targeted.
Kelly’s subpoena also commanded him to bring records he might have relating to the Middle East and Colombia, along with records of any payment provided to Hatem Abudayyeh.
The subpoena did not further identify Abudayyeh, but FightBack! has interviewed and carried articles by a Hatem Abudayyeh who’s the executive director of the Chicago-based Arab American Action Network.
Abudayyeh did not answer his office phone Tuesday and a recorded message said the voicemail was full. A message left on his cell voicemail was not returned. Several activists said their cell phones had been confiscated by the FBI.
Associated Press Writer Amy Forliti in Minneapolis contributed to this report.