Human Shields Denied Hearing on Iraq Sanctions Charges

Faced with tens of thousands of dollars in fines and the prospect of future criminal charges for traveling to Iraq, one antiwar activist is speaking out, challenging the federal government’s right to punish her for a 2003 visit to the Middle-Eastern nation. Judith Karpova, a longtime activist, interfaith minister, and freelance writer, said she hopes three other U.S. citizens also under investigation will join in her public fight.

The four are charged with violating the Iraqi Sanctions Regulations, a law that "prohibits U.S. persons from engaging in any transaction relating to travel by any U.S. citizen or permanent [non-Iraqi U.S.] resident" and also outlaws "activities within Iraq."

Karpova, Reverend Frederick Boyle, Ryan Clancy and Faith Fippinger all allegedly traveled to Iraq with Human Shields, an organization run by former Marine Ken Nichols O’Keefe, who became a peace activist and renounced his U.S. citizenship after serving in the first Gulf War. On the eve of the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq last March, O’Keefe asked thousands of people to join him as "human shields" in the hopes that they could stop the impending war by putting civilians – specifically Westerners – on the ground in Iraq.

"With the war about to begin, I thought, as did many others, that putting enough Western faces on the ground might be enough to stop it," Karpova said.

"I went to Iraq to find out what the people are like, report back on the conditions there and act as witness, according to my faith," Karpova said of her trip, which began in February 2003. "I took photographs . . . and emailed them out of the country. I wrote for Jersey Journal. And I met many, many wonderful people, both [human] shields and Iraqis. I didn’t go there to aid [Saddam] Hussein, and nothing I did helped his government."

She continued, "I had over ten years to realize that, my God, there has been a genocide going on in Iraq," Karpova said of the sanctions. "I just felt the strongest opposition had to be made. To normalize preventative war – I can’t even imagine what that does."

Karpova said the U.S. military displayed ignorance during the invasion and occupation of Iraq. "They had no idea what they were destroying," she said. "It’s the same thing here as it was there. The people, we’re all the same, and nobody deserves this to happen to them."

Karpova spent three weeks in Baghdad prior to the start of the war. "It’s an eerie, awful feeling, going around a city you know is about to be destroyed," she said. "The feeling of walking around a society – and it might have been ravaged by the sanctions and Hussein’s dictatorship but it was a thriving community, there were stores and schools and people working – only to leave. Well, I feel like I abandoned them."

When Karpova arrived back at her home near Woodstock, N.Y., on March 24, she received a letter from the Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC), a division of the Treasury Department that enforces economic sanctions and embargoes.

Dated March 20, 2003, the "Requirement to Furnish Information" demanded a full accounting of the expenses Karpova incurred while in Iraq, as well as the names and contact information for any organizations that aided her travel. It warned that a response must be made within 20 days, and that she "should be aware that failure to respond to this letter may result in the imposition of civil penalties by OFAC."

After arranging for a short extension, Karpova says she responded to the OFAC with a letter of her own, detailing the reasons she went to Iraq and stating that, outside of purchasing eight sets of coloring books and crayons to donate to children in a Baghdad hospital, she spent no money of her own while in Iraq. Karpova provided The NewStandard with a copy of the original letter sent by OFAC as well as her response.

On Aug. 5, 2004, Karpova’s lawyer, Michael Sussman, sent OFAC a three-page letter in response to another OFAC query. Sussman’s letter details apparent flaws in the substance and legality of the charges, while steadfastly maintaining the legal right of his client to violate what is commonly and, he believes, erroneously termed a "travel ban." Sussman claims the law itself is unconstitutional, does not apply to Karpova even if it were not, and that the process for enforcing the law violates her due process rights because it was imposed without affording the benefit of a hearing before an impartial adjudicator.

Sussman’s response stated that Karpova’s involvement with Iraq was non-monetary and did not support the regime of Saddam Hussein and said the proceedings represented a violation of Karpova’s "basic due process" rights.

Boyle and Fippinger also received "Requirements to Furnish Information" from OFAC, according to Karpova and lawyers working on the cases. Jonathan Hafetz, the lawyer representing Boyle in the matter, said his client received an RFI that was nearly identical to Karpova’s.

Clancy’s lawyer, Laurence Dupuis of the Wisconsin ACLU, said in a letter to OFAC that his client never received an RFI or other warning from the agency. He did, however, receive a Pre-penalty Notice from the agency stating that "OFAC intends to issue a claim against [Mr. Clancy] for a monetary penalty in the amount of $10,000.00."

The activists face two punishments, according to the provisions of the sanctions. The first stage, and the only one officially in motion against the four at this time, involves civil fines, as much as $10,000 per each specific violation. The second, which lawyers involved in the cases say is less likely, would be criminal charges, the successful prosecution of which could net each of the alleged human shields up to twelve years in jail and $1 million in additional fines.

OFAC has not returned phone calls seeking comment on the fines or other penalties that may be leveled. According to Karpova and lawyers familiar with the cases, the only one of the four currently speaking out, OFAC has not communicated with the four alleged travelers in several months.

Hafetz, Boyle’s lawyer, says his client, a longtime antiwar activist and New Jersey minister who many news outlets reported traveled to Iraq as a human shield, is refusing to comment on the matter because of the possibility that he may incriminate himself. He fears that by answering the letter, he may thereby incur penalties for what would be perceived as amounting to an admission of guilt. Alternately, ignoring the letter could bring fines as well. Hafetz also noted, in a letter to OFAC Director Richard Newcomb, a copy of which Hafetz provided to The NewStandard, that responding to the RFI amounts to an admission of guilt.

"This process violates due process and it violates the 1st and 5th Amendments," Hafetz said. "The usual course when the government is going to deprive you of your property – which is what these fines are – [is that] they provide you with a hearing. Even if they’re going to cut your welfare check by ten dollars, you get a hearing. You have the opportunity to challenge the facts in front of a judge or an impartial administrator. Instead, here, you’ve got an administrative process and no hearing."

Hafetz, who took the case pro bono in cooperation with the New Jersey American Civil Liberties Union, says the entire process, from the initial RFI to OFAC’s decision – including its threat of penalty for non-compliance – violates his client’s rights. He added that OFAC rejected his request for a guarantee of immunity for Boyle in return for compliance. Now they are awaiting a response to their Aug. 5, 2004 reply to the OFAC.

The others, Fippinger and Clancy, have decided to keep a low profile for the time being. In an email response to questions about Fippinger’s case, her lawyer, John Gurley, said, "We would prefer not to be part of your article." Dupuis said he has advised Clancy not to speak with the media at this time.

But if the others are not speaking, Karpova, currently working on a book about human shields, is taking an entirely different route. She remains insistent that the human shields and other humanitarian in Iraq did nothing wrong. Furthermore, she says, much like traveling to Iraq for humanitarian purposes, the only way to resolve this matter is as loudly as possible, in the public domain.

As violence escalates in Iraq, Karpova says she feels more confident that what she and the others did was right. She added that she refuses to sit back idly and await OFAC’s decision. She and Sussman say they are also looking into filing a countersuit, and would like the other three travelers to join them.

Karpova has been taking steps to further that goal. In addition to seeking financial support for their defense, she is sending out letters to potential supporters seeking funds for the possible countersuit. In the meantime, OFAC’s pending decision looms over their heads.