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Supreme Court Rules that Humanitarian Aid to Terrorist Organizations is Illegal

The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that a law prohibiting “material support” to terrorist organizations also bans support intended for an organization’s humanitarian activities.

The case was brought by two individuals and six aid organizations, one of which is theHumanitarian Law Project, that provide support to the Partiya Karkeran Kurdistan (PKK) and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). (The PKK wishes to establish an independent state for Kurds in Turkey. The LTTE seeks an independent homeland for the Tamils in Sri Lanka.) Both of these groups do humanitarian work, but they are also designated as “foreign terrorist organizations” by the United States for their numerous terrorist attacks.

The plaintiffs claim that they want to support the peaceful activities of the PKK and LTTE. Specifically they want to train members of these groups to use international law to resolve disputes peacefully and petition the United Nations. However, under federal law, it is a crime to knowingly provide material support or resources to a foreign terrorist organization. The types of support prohibited by the law include “training,” “expert advice,” “service,” and providing “personnel.” The U.S. government contends that the plaintiffs’ activities fall under the prohibited areas and are illegal. The plaintiffs argue that the law violates the U.S. Constitution, in part because it impinges on First Amendment rights to freedom of speech and association.

In its ruling, the Court determined that the law does not violate the First Amendment. In its written opinion of the case, the Court noted that the law does not impede protected political speech. The Court writes that “independently advocating for a cause is different from the prohibited act of providing a service to a foreign terrorist organization.”

Plaintiffs also argued that the law, when applied to speech, should require proof of intent to support the foreign terrorist organization’s illegal activities. The Court also rejected this interpretation. The Court writes that “Congress chose knowledge about the organization’s connection to terrorism, not specific intent to further its terrorist activities, as the necessary mental state for a violation.”

The Court noted that it would be impossible to separate funds or activities designated for humanitarian purposes from those furthering terrorist action. Also, the Court ruled that providing any support to such groups is tantamount to promoting terrorism.

“The PKK and the LTTE are deadly groups. It is not difficult to conclude, as Congress did, that the taint of their violent activities is so great that working in coordination with them or at their command legitimizes and furthers their terrorist means,” wrote the Court.Holder v. Humanitarian Law Project.pdf

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