Fri, Aug 15, 2003 - Page 6 News List

Supporting terror groups becomes charge of choice


More and more, the charge of choice for prosecutors in the US war on terrorism is that someone provided material support to terror groups, a count defense lawyers and at least one federal judge say can give the US government far too much latitude to pursue a case.

Accused British arms trafficker Hemant Lakhani joins a long list of defendants to face the charge since the Sept. 11 terror attacks. Lakhani was arrested in New Jersey and charged Wednesday with providing material support in an alleged missile-smuggling plot.

Prosecutors say the law, passed by Congress in 1996 and updated in 2001 by the USA Patriot Act, is critical in stopping terrorists and their supporters before they act.

"You don't have to wait until the fuse is being lit," said Michael Chertoff, former head of the Justice Department's criminal division and now a federal appeals court judge. "If that were the standard, a lot of bombs would go off and a lot of people would lose their lives."

Defense lawyers counter that the law is so vague, people could be charged with a felony carrying a maximum penalty of 15 years and fines up to US$250,000 for such things as writing a check to a charity with hidden links to terror groups.

"If you cast too wide a net and you don't use appropriate discretion to limit these prosecutions, you risk ensnaring innocent people and you demean the entire process of prosecuting terror," said Neal Sonnett, a Miami attorney who is past president of the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers.

Rodney Peronius, a lawyer who defended one of the members of an alleged terror cell in the US dubbed the "Lackawanna Six," said the potential penalties force many suspects to seek plea bargains.

"If you go to trial and lose, you're going to be looking at the maximum," he said.

The law makes it a felony crime to provide "material support or resources" to a foreign terrorist organization. Included in the definition are such obvious things as providing weapons, false identification, safehouses, "lethal substances," money and financial services.

But the law also makes it a crime to supply such things as personnel, transportation and "other physical assets." Some experts say those provisions are far too murky. US District Judge John Koeltl of New York agreed recently.

Material support charges were not used frequently until recently. The government's first major use of the law came in 2000, when 18 people were charged in North Carolina with running a cigarette smuggling operation whose proceeds benefited the Hezbollah guerrilla organization in Lebanon.

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