LOS ANGELES (AP) - A federal judge has ruled that a portion of the USA Patriot Act which bars giving expert advice or assistance to groups designated as foreign terrorist organizations is unconstitutional and the government may not enforce it.
David Cole, an attorney and Georgetown University law professor who argued the case on behalf of the Humanitarian Law Project, said the ruling marks the first court decision to declare a part of the Patriot Act unconstitutional.
In a 36-page ruling handed down late Friday and made available Monday, U.S. District Judge Audrey Collins said the ban on providing "expert advice or assistance" is impermissibly vague in violation of the First and Fifth Amendments to the Constitution.
The U.S. Justice Department was reviewing the judge's ruling, spokesman Mark Corallo said in a statement from Washington, D.C.
Corallo called the Patriot Act "an essential tool in the war on terror" and asserted that the portion at issue in the ruling was only a modest amendment to a pre-existing anti-terrorism law.
"By targeting those who provide material support by providing 'expert advice or assistance,' the law made clear that Americans are threatened as much by the person who teaches a terrorist to build a bomb as by the one who pushes the button," he said.
A civil rights attorney applauded the decision.
"We're thrilled that the first judge to look at the free-speech implications of the Patriot Act has ruled properly," said ACLU attorney Ann Beeson. "She recognized that the Patriot Act was written so vaguely that it is suppressing legitimate political speech."
The case before the court involved five groups and two U.S. citizens seeking to provide support for lawful, nonviolent activities on behalf of Kurdish refugees in Turkey.
The Humanitarian Law Project, which brought the suit, said the plaintiffs were threatened with 15 years in prison if they advised groups on seeking a peaceful resolution of the Kurds' campaign for self-determination in Turkey.
The judge's ruling said the law, as written, does not differentiate between impermissible advice on violence and encouraging the use of peaceful, nonviolent means to achieve goals.
"The USA Patriot Act places no limitation on the type of expert advice and assistance which is prohibited and instead bans the provision of all expert advice and assistance regardless of its nature," the judge's ruling said.
"This is a victory for everyone who believes the war on terrorism ought to be fought consistent with constitutional principles," said Cole, the attorney who argued the case.
"It is the first federal decision declaring any part of the Patriot Act unconstitutional," he said.
The ruling specified that the plaintiffs seek to provide support to "the lawful, nonviolent activities" of the Kurdistan Workers' Party, known as the PKK, and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, known as the LTTE, which advocates for the rights of the Tamil people in Sri Lanka. Both groups are on a list issued by former Secretary of State Madeline Albright in 1997 designating them as "foreign terrorist organizations."
In Sri Lanka, the Tamil Tiger rebels have been engaged in a two-decade civil war that has killed more than 65,000 people.
Turkey's military has been battling Kurdish rebels seeking autonomy since 1984, a fight that has left some 37,000 people dead.
Since the "foreign terrorist organizations" designation, the judge said, the Humanitarian Law Project and other plaintiffs including Ralph Fertig, the HLP president "have not provided such support, fearing criminal investigation, prosecution and conviction."
The ruling noted that with enactment of the Patriot Act, the prohibition on providing "material support" or "resources" to such groups was expanded to include "expert advice or assistance."
The judge did reject one portion of the lawsuit which claimed that one section of the Patriot Act was "substantially overbroad."
Lawyers for U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft opposed the lawsuit on grounds that there is not "a genuine threat of imminent prosecution" of those who would assist the groups in question. They also argued that the advice they sought to offer on international human rights, peacemaking and advocacy is "not even arguably expert."
The judge disagreed, citing the plaintiffs' long history of work in the field of human rights.
The HLP is a nonprofit organization headquartered in Los Angeles which has consultative status to the United Nations, the ruling said. It is dedicated to furthering international compliance with humanitarian law and human rights law and peaceful resolution of armed conflicts.
Fertig, who has a record of over 50 years in human rights work, has conducted fact-finding missions to Turkey and published reports on his findings which support the struggle for Kurdish liberation. The reports assert human rights violations against the Kurds including execution of more than 18,000 Kurds, arbitrary detentions and torture of those who speak out for them and destruction of 2,400 Kurdish villages.
The ruling noted that Fertig and others associated with the HLP have provided training to PKK and Kurds "in using humanitarian law and international human rights law and in seeking a peaceful resolution of the conflict in Turkey."