United States economic sanctions against Iraq were lifted over a year ago, but a Chicago-based network of human rights activists is still feeling the blow.
Since 1996, the grassroots group Voices in the Wilderness (VITW) has sent over 70 delegations of activists to Iraq to deliver humanitarian aid to civilians. Deliveries were mostly medical supplies, such as catheter tubes, cancer medications, and over-the-counter drugs that were inaccessible to Iraqis due to the sanctions.
As their way of voicing opposition to the sanctions, VITW would notify the Treasury Department's Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) when they were planning a trip. The group received numerous warnings of possible consequences, but VITW continued with their mission anyway.
"We don't believe that we need permission from our government to perform works of mercy," says Ceylon Mooney, one of two Memphis residents involved in VITW. "The law says you can't support human life because our government doesn't support another country's dictatorship. We don't believe in that law."
The group was eventually taken to court over a 1998 delegation that violated U.S. economic sanctions. Last Friday, U.S. federal judge John Bates ordered VITW to pay a $20,000 fine.
Part-time Memphian Joel Gulledge works with VITW's Chicago office.
Flyer: How have you guys not been fined before this?Gulledge: We've had individuals fined before, but this fine is against Voices in the Wilderness.
What did you deliver to Iraq on that delegation?
They fined us $20,000 for delivering medical supplies and toys to civilians and children in Iraq.
How will VITW pay the fine?
We're not going to.
What kind of punishment will VITW face?
They'll probably freeze our bank account, which means as of now, we can no longer accept donations. And that's how we exist. They'll probably try to seize our assets. Legally, we don't exist because we're not a 501(c)3, but our lawyers have advised us to stop cashing checks. We've started returning them when they come in.
How will VITW continue its mission without funding?
Basically, what's happening is VITW will come to a close as a name. We'll continue to do the same kind of work and it will still be the same group of people, but we'll have a new name.