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Feds target Voices in the Wilderness
Punished for delivering aid to Iraqis

By Nicole Colson | August 26, 2005 | Page 1

A FEDERAL judge this month ordered the human rights group Voices in the Wilderness to pay a $20,000 fine--for the "crime" of delivering humanitarian aid to the people of Iraq.

Voices openly violated the U.S.-sponsored policy of United Nations (UN) sanctions against Iraq that was imposed prior to the 1991 Gulf War and continued until 2003. As the group points out, the policy targeted innocent Iraqi civilians, particularly children, by barring everything from routine medical equipment and drugs (like vaccines for infant hepatitis, tetanus and diptheria), to spare parts for water sanitation systems, electric plants, buses and communications systems. The sanctions killed more than 1 million Iraqis, according to UN estimates.

For years, Voices sent delegations to Iraq to deliver small quantities of medicine and supplies. The U.S. government wants to punish the group for this.

In 2002, the U.S. Treasury Department levied a $20,000 fine against Voices--just days after it participated in actions against the looming war on Iraq. The group refused to pay, saying at the time, "It is incumbent upon each of us to challenge in every nonviolent manner possible the acts of the government."

Now, Voices has been ordered by federal judge John Bates to pay the fine. But the group remains defiant. "Any money that was ever entrusted to us by other people certainly wasn't sent because people wanted us to turn it over to the federal government," Voices founder Kathy Kelly told Socialist Worker. "I could be a bit more pointed at this juncture, and say that we won't turn over one dime to war criminals who are planning further attacks against Iraq and who are designing plans to seize Iraq's precious and irreplaceable resources."

Kelly added, "The judge concluded his 17-page opinion by saying that the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, in his letter from a Birmingham jail, wrote that those who break an unjust law should do so 'openly, lovingly and with a readiness to accept the penalties.' We want to say that if he chooses to put any of us in jail, we'll go openly and lovingly, but we won't pay any penalties to this government's war-making. And we highly doubt that, had a judge in Birmingham said to Dr. Martin Luther King, 'Okay, I'm going to impose a fine on you" instead of put him in jail, King would have reached for his checkbook and encouraged everybody to buckle under to those penalties."

Kelly points out that while Voices has been fined for bringing small amounts of humanitarian aid to innocent Iraqis, there have been no repercussions for two Texas-based oil companies--Bay Oil and Odin--accused of flouting the sanctions. Bay Oil allegedly gave kickbacks to the Saddam Hussein government in order to secure key contracts, while Odin was--with the apparent knowledge of the U.S. Navy--offloading oil smuggled by Jordan onto several of its tankers. Both were direct violations of sanctions.

"How come the Office of Foreign Assets Control didn't go after these big oil companies?" said Kelly. "They said, in response to [Michigan Sen.] Carl Levin's query, 'We didn't think that we had responsibility to police enforcement of UN sanctions.'

"Well, we, with our little duffle bags of medicine, certainly made it clear to them that we were going to violate the law. They came after us in seven days. Seven days after the announcement, we got their letter of warning. As soon as we went over there, in relation to the Desert Fox bombing in November of 1998, when it looked like the U.S. was going to bomb, we were on their screen, and we were given a pre-penalty notice. We announced that we would be over there in the way of the shock-and-awe campaign, and we got another bump up, saying 'Okay, you haven't paid this fine. You have to come into the courts and explain why you haven't paid the fine...

"If I ever did have the chance to stand in front of some justice figure that cared, I would want to say, 'Look, we're not asking to see penalties or jail time for the 'big fish' that broke the sanctions--nor do we think that these kinds of penalties should be imposed on the 'little fish.' What we want you to see is the monster in the pond--and that is the callous disregard for Iraqi children...

"You could say, 'Well, there are poor and wasting children all over the world,' and that's certainly true, and I think we have a big responsibility for them, too, actually. But these children are among generations now who have been punished because the U.S. insists on weighing in with our military might and with our ability to manipulate world opinion and UN politics. The responsibility to stop that murder, I think, is on us."

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