Some good news, for a change: The excruciating ordeal of the Los Angeles Eight is finally over. On October 30, federal prosecutors gave up on their efforts to deport Khader Hamide and Michel Shehadeh, the last of the seven Palestinians and one Kenyan arrested in 1987 on patently silly anti-terrorism charges whose cases remained before the courts.
The tale of the LA Eight is an odiferous stew of anti-Arab and immigrant-bashing racism, FBI machismo, Justice Department malevolence and laws aimed at criminalizing political thought. On January 26, 1987, squads of agents from the FBI and the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) descended at dawn upon the Palestinians’ homes, leading them away in shackles to the maximum-security Terminal Island prison. (The eighth person was picked up a week later.) The Eight — Bashar Amer, Iyad Barakat, Hamide and his Kenyan wife Julie Mungai, Amjad Obeid, Ayman Obeid, Naim Sharif and Shehadeh — were accused of membership in the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, a Marxist-leaning group within the PLO. Prosecutors told an immigration court that the Eight had passed out copies of Democratic Palestine and al-Hadaf, two PFLP publications that, though available in the Library of Congress, were “subversive.” Since none of the Eight were then US citizens, the government invoked Section 241 of the 1952 McCarran-Walter Act, which made it a deportable offense to distribute literature promoting “doctrines of world communism.” Six of the eight, without green cards, were also slapped with a variety of visa violations. “We don’t care how we score our touchdown, by pass or run,” said INS lawyer William Odencrantz at the time. “We just want to get them out of the country.”
Judge Roy Daniels refused to hear Odencrantz’s case, based as it was on “secret evidence,” including testimony from an FBI agent under orders from Attorney General Ed Meese to speak “to the judge only.” Nor was Daniels impressed by the 45-page dossier compiled by Frank Knight, a self-styled “Lone Ranger” in the Bureau, and consisting of such items as photographs of the Eight arranging fundraisers for Palestinian causes and dancing the dabka. Indeed, although Hamide and Mungai had been under surveillance for three years prior to their arrest, the FBI admitted it had no evidence of illegal activity. On February 18, 1987, Daniels ordered the Eight released from detention.
Yet the Eight’s lack of citizenship — and lack of protection from double jeopardy — allowed the government to persist in its campaign, which was to last through the Reagan, Bush, Clinton and younger Bush administrations. When Congress repealed the McCarthy-era statute, the INS sought deportation orders on the grounds that the PFLP had called for assassination of government officials. A district court judge ruled these tactics unconstitutional. Then, in 1991, the government tried again to deport Hamide and Shehadeh, under the terms of a 1990 law targeting those who “engage in terrorist activity,” defined here as the destruction of property. Prosecutors never claimed that the Eight were involved in acts of political violence. Rather, they argued that money they raised for charitable endeavors — clinics and child care centers in refugee camps — found its way into PFLP coffers and that, even if the PFLP itself provided social services, it was still a terrorist organization. As one Justice Department official put it, “The Nazis built the autobahn.”
From the beginning, the LA Eight attracted broad-based support, from the Japanese-American Citizens’ League and a host of Latino organizations to the Center for Constitutional Rights and the American Civil Liberties Unions. In the 1990s, the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, which was helping the National Lawyers’ Guild defend the Eight from deportation, also counter-sued to have the entire case dismissed on the grounds that it was a politically motivated selective prosecution. The government clearly had singled out for dogged enforcement of immigration rules peaceful people who happened to be vocal in their advocacy for Palestinian self-determination and their criticism of US Middle East policy. From this point forward, as prominent immigration lawyer Jeanne Butterfield wrote in these pages in 1999, the case became a referendum on the question: “Do immigrants have First Amendment rights?”
In 1997, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals agreed that they do, and that the INS was engaging in unwarranted selective prosecution. Unwilling to admit defeat, the INS appealed all the way to the Supreme Court. Shockingly, eight of the nine justices voted with the government, sending the remaining defendants back to immigration court in 1999. Judge Bruce Einhorn, who had previously heard the case there, remained unswayed by the government’s baroque legalese and reliance on “secret evidence” that successive courts have hinted amounts to exactly nothing. He granted the Eight’s motion for dismissal, but the government again appealed.
The appeal was pending when the September 11, 2001 attacks ushered in the PATRIOT Act, which lowered the bar for proving alleged ties to terrorism in order to deport immigrants. Federal prosecutors — now working for the Department of Homeland Security — seized upon the expansive new language to amend their charges against Hamide and Shehadeh for the fifth time. In January 2007, Judge Einhorn again ordered the government to desist, labeling its case “an embarrassment to the rule of law.” Finally, almost 21 years after launching their disgraceful political witch hunt, the government relented.
All is not well that ends well, of course. Years of legal limbo did incalculable damage to the lives of the LA Eight and their families. The case “felt like a sword hanging over our head,” Shehadeh recently told the listeners of Amy Goodman’s “Democracy Now!” “It was like torture.” The government lawyers who obdurately kept the threat of deportation alive will pay no penalty for what they have done to the LA Eight, and neither will FBI agent Knight, who took an obsessive interest in seeing the Palestinians punished for their activism. Shehadeh, for his part, sticks to the high road, telling Goodman: “You know, we wanted this day to be vindicated and to prove that this case has always been a political case, that we have done nothing wrong, that all we did is to speak our minds…and relay our thoughts to the public in regards to the Palestinian struggle.”
Justice for the Los Angeles Eight was very, very long overdue. We extend our warm congratulations to all who persevered in this vital civil liberties fight.
Many thanks to all of our friends and supporters who responded so promptly and generously to the appeal printed in this space in the fall issue. As has always been the case, our readers are our lifeline.