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Illegal Defense Team

Humanitarian-aid renegades head for Iraq.

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By Nadia Oehlsen

Since 1996 members of the Chicago-based Voices in the Wilderness have cordially notified the U.S. Treasury Department each time they've violated United Nations sanctions against Iraq by taking medicine, vitamins, and other humanitarian supplies into the country without a license. So they weren't surprised earlier this month when they got a letter from the Treasury Department's Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) warning that at least 4 of the 57 Voices members who've traveled on 18 illegal trips to Iraq could soon face fines amounting to $160,000.

But after the U.S.-British bombing raids started a week ago, Voices members were scrambling to gather medical supplies, toys, and enough money to buy three last-minute plane tickets in an attempt to send yet another illegal delegation to Baghdad. By Thursday afternoon a flood of incoming calls was tying up both phone lines at Voices' Uptown headquarters, which is also the apartment of founder Kathy Kelly, her ailing father, and an ever-changing assortment of guests. "It's been like this since yesterday," said Craig Connolly. "The phone hasn't stopped ringing." In the living room Kelly was talking to a Channel Two reporter--20 seconds of her comments would air with the opinions of other Chicagoans on the station's six o'clock news.

None of the Voices in the Wilderness delegates--who come from the U.S., England, and Australia--ever considered trying to make their trips to Iraq legal by applying for a license, as other humanitarian groups have. Kelly says that's because Voices members oppose the United Nations' eight-year embargo against Iraq, which even the UN estimates has led to the deaths from disease and malnutrition of one million Iraqis. "We think this law represents a crime against humanity," she says. "The Geneva Accords state that you cannot target civilians through warlike measures."

Last year OFAC sent a letter to Voices warning that the maximum penalties for violating the sanctions included million-dollar fines and 12-year prison sentences. Last week a Treasury Department spokesperson said she knew of only one American organization that has been fined for bringing similar goods into Iraq during the eight years the sanctions have been in place.

Kelly and other core members, who've taken nearly $500,000 worth of supplies to Iraq, say they won't pay any fines. She says they plan to go to Washington on December 28 to meet with representatives of OFAC and the U.S. Attorney General's office to explain their actions. "Our plan is to show OFAC all the evidence we have of things we've brought to Iraq, like samples of vitamins and children's aspirin. I think most important is to show them pictures of the children, saying, 'These are the people we met. Most of them aren't alive today.'"

The latest delegation--which consisted of Kelly, Brad Simpson, and Alan Pogue--drove into Baghdad Saturday evening, about four minutes before a bombing raid began. They expect to return to the U.S. just after Christmas with pictures of dead Iraqis.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Kathy Kelly photo by Yarka Vendorinska.

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