Sunday, July 02, 2006
On Monday June 26, 2006 I did something I have never done before, I participated in a protest demonstration. I grew up in the 1960's in a conservative agrarian culture that generally frowned upon the idea of supporting the protest rallies and marches that were a part of the civil rights movement of that era. So why did I take a day off of work that I really needed to stay home and get done, in order to go to Harrisonburg to stand with several hundred of my friends in protest of an event that we all felt was injustice towards some of us.
The occasion was the sentencing in federal district court of three Kurdish men who were being charged for violation of the Patriot Act when they sent money back to their homeland in northern Iraq Kurdistan with the intention of helping family and friends. Apparently they had been sending money to their homeland prior to 9/11 and were unaware that the passage of the Patriot Act shortly after the 9/11 terrorist attacks made it illegal to transfer money overseas without a license. They continued transferring money over the next several years and became the objects of intensive investigation by the FBI. In at least one incident the FBI agents came in the early morning with search warrents and confiscated personal property and money, talked abusingly to the men, and forced the frightened wives and children to wait in an adjoining room without breakfast while they conducted the several hour's search. Despite the fact that the FBI acknowledged that they uncovered no evidence that the transferred money was going to terrorist organizations and that they knew that the charged men were not willfully breaking the law, they pressed charges anyway. The potential penalties for these felonious convictions could have included imprisonment, heavy fines, and deportation. There begs the question, why didn't the initial investigators, once they knew that their charges had no evil intentions or awareness that they were engaging in illegal activity, simply help them get the necessary licensure?
We happened to know all of these men personally as they have been coming with their families out to our farm every summer for the past five years or so to buy "pick your own" produce. We have come to know them as people of good character and they have become our friends. One thing we have learned from Kurdish culture is that they believe in and practice the mandate to "be their brother's keeper" and to stand in support of each other when someone is in trouble. This is in fact what they were doing when they were sending money back to friends and family in Kurdistan and why several of the men were channeling relatively large sums of money from numerous families thru their personal bank accounts which attracted the attention of the FBI investigators. This was also the reason why Christine and myself went to Harrisonburg last Monday when we really needed to stay home and work, to stand with our Kurdish neighbors as their sentences were being imposed.
We were fortunate and honored to be permitted entry into the courtroom with mostly their families and a few American supporters to witness the trial. No one inside or outside carried signs, attempted to block access, or shouted angry slogans. A few sang songs of praise or petition. As the judge was about to begin imposing the sentences, He asked those in support of them to stand and acknowleged that the fact that they had this much community support spoke a lot about their character and would have some influence on the severity of their sentences. One of the defendents stated that he was unaware that he was doing wrong and that he was sorry and asked the judge for forgiveness. All three of the men were sentenced to varying lengths of probation and modest fines. None were sentenced to prison or deportation. The sense of relief could be felt by everyone in the crowd as we exited the courtroom and mingled with the crowd outside.
Nothing I have ever done felt so right and so good!