WASHINGTON — A federal judge tried to balance the right of association with national security Friday when he heard arguments concerning the Columbia-based Islamic American Relief Agency.
After much back-and-forth questioning, Justice Reggie Walton denied the charity’s motion to unfreeze its assets.
Walton acknowledged that the agency “has compelling reasons,” for wanting its assets back, but said “we are talking about a huge amount of relief being requested. If a mistake is made it could have a drastic impact.”
The agency’s assets were frozen Oct. 13, 2004, when the Office of Foreign Assets Control labeled the charity a specially designated global terrorist organization because of its affiliation with the Sudan-based Islamic African Relief Agency.
The Treasury Department listed the Columbia-based agency as an alias of the Sudan agency and the Department of Justice characterized it as aiding the “parent group” in Sudan.
Andrea Gacki, attorney for the Justice Department, said the Columbia agency “is part and parcel of a terrorist organization.” She added, “The government had to take action to shut down the wider organization.”
Arguments at Friday’s hearing also centered on the government’s policy of declassifying evidence. Walton viewed the government findings Monday in his chambers, but lawyers for the agency have not seen that evidence.
Walton acknowledged Shereef Akeel, a lawyer for IARA-USA, was in a difficult position, having to respond to evidence he had not seen, but said “the government has made sufficient showing to justify its actions,” in not declassifying documents.
The judge appeared conflicted and extended the time limits for arguments.
He also asked the lawyers for opinions on weighing evidence against decisions made by the executive branch, which carry a higher degree of deference.
Akeel said it is “not the role of the court to rubber-stamp executive decisions,” while Gacki characterized it as a “balancing act.” Walton agreed it is a difficult issue.
“I cherish our rights and freedoms but those rights can’t be exercised if they are impaired by terrorists,” he said.
Akeel called the decision “a sign of the times.”
“It’s disappointing,” he said. “The government hasn’t even alleged any money was diverted for any wrongdoing.”
John Zwerling, co-counsel for the agency, said there is no evidence of wrongdoing.
The agency will not appeal the decision until after the hearings surrounding its current complaints against various members of the FBI and Justice Department are concluded.