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Second local group lines up to challenge Patriot Act

Portland Seven say their constitutional rights were violated

The so-called Portland Seven, charged with conspiring to levy war against the United States and other federal crimes, are expected to file challenges to the USA Patriot Act today, alleging that using the act to gather evidence against them violated their constitutional rights.

The act was passed by Congress in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. It expanded the power of the federal government to collect information secretly in cases in which intelligence gathering constitutes a 'significant purpose' of the investigation.

The Portland Seven will be the second local group to challenge the act this week.

On Wednesday, the Islamic Center of Portland joined five other plaintiffs from across the nation in asking a U.S. District Court in Michigan to prevent the government from using Section 215 of the act to obtain information secretly from political organizations, medical providers, libraries, charities and even personal residences.

David Fidanque, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Oregon, said the lawsuit was filed in Michigan because most of the plaintiffs Ñ and the country's largest Muslim community Ñ are located there.

The Islamic center, the only Oregon plaintiff, owns and runs a Southwest Portland mosque, Masjed As-Saber, and the Islamic School of Portland.

The lawsuit, filed by the ACLU, marks the first time the act has been challenged by someone other than defendants in criminal cases Ñ such as the Portland Seven Ñ where evidence was obtained, at least in part, under the act's investigatory provisions.

U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft, whose local office is prosecuting the Portland Seven case, and FBI Director Robert Mueller, whose local agents reportedly intercepted several hundred communications in the case, both are named as defendants in the Michigan lawsuit.

The Portland Seven's motions to suppress evidence in their case, including their attacks on the USA Patriot Act, are due today. They are expected to be heard by U.S. District Judge Robert Jones in October.

The group's attorneys have said that they will argue that the act violates their clients' constitutional rights to freedom of expression, association and exercise of religion, as well as their rights to due process and protection from unreasonable searches and seizures.

Portland Seven codefendant Patrice Lumumba Ford was well aware of the act, according to court documents in his case, which say that Ford told an undercover informant that 'they' Ñ apparently referring to the federal government Ñ could find proof against him and the other defendants if they searched hard enough.

With the USA Patriot Act, Ford reportedly added, 'they don't need evidence.'

ACLU pinpoints section

Unlike the motions expected to be filed in the Portland Seven case, the ACLU's Michigan lawsuit is directed at only one part of the USA Patriot Act: Section 215.

Under that section, federal investigators can obtain secret orders, from a special court in Washington, D.C., to obtain records and other 'tangible things' from such sources as libraries, charities and political organizations if the U.S. attorney general certifies that intelligence gathering is 'a significant purpose' of their investigation.

The act bars those sources from revealing that such information has been sought or provided.

This procedure is different from the one used in criminal cases. In those cases, information typically is obtained via a subpoena Ñ which can be challenged before it must be complied with Ñ or a search warrant issued by a local judge, like Jones, based on an investigator's representation that there is probable cause to believe that a crime has been committed.

In a written statement issued Wednesday, U.S. Justice Department spokeswoman Barbara Comstock defended Section 215, noting that it can only be used for gathering foreign intelligence and 'to defend the United States against foreign spies or international terrorists.'

'(It) cannot be used to investigate garden-variety crimes, or even domestic terrorism,' Comstock said.

Did FBI use section?

The lawsuit was announced Wednesday at a news conference in which Fidanque and Alaa Abunijem, the Islamic center's president, participated.

'I believe the FBI investigated me, and may still be investigating me, because of my religious beliefs and country of origin,' Abunijem said. 'But under the USA Patriot Act, I don't have the right to know.'

According to the lawsuit, the Islamic Center of Portland 'reasonably believes' that the FBI has used, or is using, Section 215 to obtain records and personal belongings 'pertaining to it and its community members and students.'

And Abunijem 'reasonably believes' that the FBI currently is using the law against him because of his religion; his birthplace (Saudi Arabia); his leadership role in the Islamic center and a Michigan-based Muslim organization; and his donations to a charity called Help the Needy, which describes itself as a New York humanitarian organization.

On Feb. 26, 2003, the lawsuit said, an FBI agent called Abunijem at work and questioned him about a donation that he had made to Help the Needy. The FBI did not tell Abunijem how it had learned of his donations to the charity, which the lawsuit says totaled several hundred dollars in the last few years.

The same day, the lawsuit said, the Department of Justice announced that Help the Needy and four associated individuals had been indicted in New York for allegedly transferring funds to people in Iraq for humanitarian reasons, without having obtained the proper license to do so.

Abunijem said Wednesday that he has no actual knowledge of the FBI using Section 215 to obtain information about his charitable donations or other activities but continues to believe that it has done so.

Fidanque said it's possible the U.S. Department of Justice will say, in response to the lawsuit, that it hasn't used its powers under Section 215 in Oregon and has no need to do so.

'If so, this lawsuit can go away very quickly,' Fidanque said. But, he added, 'I don't expect that to happen.'