New York Federal Criminal Practice Blog
August 9, 2008

EDNY Judge Denies Motion to Dismiss Indictment Charging English Teacher and Translator with Providing Material Support to Terrorists

A middle-aged woman, who taught English and translated documents for an Iranian dissident group dedicated to democracy, hardly fits the image of a terrorist, but that individual happens to be the sole defendant in a single-count federal indictment in Brooklyn charging her with providing material “personnel” support to terrorists.  Ms. Taleb-Jedi’s problem is that the organization for which she worked, the People’s Mojahedin Organization of Iran (“PMOI”) is also committed to the violent overthrow of the Iranian government, and as such, is on the U.S. government’s list of foreign terrorist organizations (“FTO”).  The fact that now – more than ten years after that designation – the PMOI has become the current darling of the U.S. military, the U.K. no longer designates it a terrorist organization finding that its means and methods have changed, and the U.S. military as well as several members of Congress similarly think the terrorist designation should be reversed, is immaterial. 

In United States v. Taleb-Jedi, 06 Cr 652 (BMC), 2008 WL 2832183 (E.D.N.Y. July 23, 2008), the court denied her lawyers’ multi-layered and creative motion to dismiss the indictment, but in the process warned the prosecutors that “if the proof at trial shows only that defendant participated in the PMOI through mere membership and chanting at meetings, it may well be insufficient to reach a jury or sustain a guilty verdict.”  Similarly, “if the defendant taught English for the sole purpose of helping other members to advocate before the United Nations on behalf of the PMOI, the statute may not reach such conduct.” 

The case is a splendid example of no-stone-unturned criminal defense.  Ms. Taleb-Jedi’s lawyers argued variously that the indictment should be dismissed for failure to state a claim under Fed.R.Crim.P. 7(c) (because it fails to detail the material support provided), that the statute is unconstitutional under the First and Fifth Amendments (because it precludes the defendant from challenging at trial the FTO designation), that the statute’s specific intent element is deficient (it is not enough that the defendant intend to further the PMOI’s goals, she must also specifically intend to further its terrorist aims), that the statute is impermissibly vague (because it doesn’t adequately define “personnel”), that the statute is overbroad (because it criminalizes protected First Amendment activity) and that the prosecution is outrageous (e.g., because the U.S. military may now use the PMOI to gather intelligence).

In a lengthy and meticulous decision, the court rejected these challenges, highlighting the difference between someone who is merely an advocate, and one who is an actual employee, “under the terrorist organization’s direction or control.”  The court also noted that in wartime, it is permissible for the military to pick and choose its friends, and the DOJ its enemies, war being an “outrageous but . . . sometimes necessary undertaking.”

The case is, however, a disturbing reminder – in the same week that Osama Bin Laden’s driver gets acquitted of the most serious charge against him and sentenced to close to time-served by a military jury – that in the war on terror, just like the war on drugs, the Department of Justice devotes its preciously limited resources on easy and innocuous targets.

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