Punished for saving lives: US courts force anti-war group to disband

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After 10 years of non-violent protest and direct aid to the suffering people of Iraq, Chicago-based group Voices in the Wilderness (VitW) has been forced to cease operating following an order by a US federal judge that the group pay a civil penalty – effectively a fine – of $20,000 for delivering medical supplies to Iraq without a permit.

Founded in 1995, VitW was always upfront about its deliberate violations of the genocidal embargo on the Iraqi people, organising more than seventy delegations to the country, each of which took vital medicines and medical equipment. Their banning follows repeated warnings from the US Treasury Department's Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC), part of whose job is to ensure that Iraqi children die unnecessarily from diseases which would barely keep the child of a rich western family home from school.

The judge’s decision concluded an eight year battle over charges of sanction violations. When they were at last fined $20,000, they responded by sending 20,000 Iraqi dinar, then valued at under $14, with telling the media that they were attempting to draw attention to the way in which the embargo had destroyed the currency's purchasing power. The group defended itself by arguing that as they were involved in humanitarian acts, they were exempt from the embargo. Criticised for not applying for the necessary permit, they explained that this would have caused unacceptable delays in a situation of increasing urgency.

During court hearings, VitW repeatedly asked why humanitarian organizations were prosecuted while companies that broke sanctions for profit were not fined or penalized. “It’s incredible that OFAC has pursued fining a relatively small number of people, but companies are untouched,” said Jeff Guntzel, one of many group activists who has travelled to Iraq on numerous occasions.

The group has decided against accepting donations, despite the fact that the money could easily be raised from sympathisers. VitW bank accounts are frozen, and cheques are being returned uncashed. This action is designed to ensure that all such available cash goes to where it is most needed, to humanitarian aid in Iraq and educational work within the United States. The latter has increasingly become the group's focus since it took the decision in March that conditions in Iraq had become too dangerous for activists' lives to be put at risk.

Although delegations have ceased pending an improvement in the security situation – one which currently seems a long way off - VitW will continue to work with the Iraqi people under its new name, Voices for Creative Nonviolence.

Despite the risk of up to 12 years in prison, founding member Kathy Kelly says that VitW will not pay “one penny or dime” of the 'civil penalty' in a “conscientious objection to the utterly ruthless policies of war criminals in power.”