Foreign Agents Registration Act is a Tool to Repress Dissent

published on FightBack News, April 30, 2023

Outrageous indictments and arrest warrants issued for APSP leadership. 

At the antiwar rally in Washington DC on March 18, Omali Yeshitela said “These people must be really stupid if they think that Black People in the US need Russians to tell them that they are oppressed!”  [jb]

Minneapolis, MN – On April 18, the Department of Justice announced new indictments and arrest warrants for the leadership of the African Peoples Socialist Party (APSP) and the Uhuru movement. The Department has alleged that Omali Yeshitela, Jesse Nevel and Penny Hess conspired to act as unregistered foreign agents, in violation of the 18 U.S.C. § 951 – a statute related to the little known Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA).

FARA is a piece of federal law that dates back to 1938, and specifically to Special Committee on Un-American Activities, the precursor of the now-infamous House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC). The Special Committee was initially created to combat nazi influence during World War II, but also set its sights on domestic communist movements. In the 1940s and 50s, HUAC provided the platform for Senator Joseph McCarthy’s Red Scare interrogations of suspected leftists and progressives across the country.

In short, FARA applies to “foreign agents,” which it defines as anyone who engages in political activity or gathers funds or valuable goods upon the request or order of, or under the direction or control of, a “foreign principal.” A foreign principal is defined to include any foreign government or political party, or any person based outside of the United States. FARA also applies to anyone who engages in political activity in the interest of a person or organization which is substantially funded or directed by a foreign principal or collects things of value for the foreign principal.

Anyone covered by FARA is required to register as a foreign agent with the U.S. attorney general. Furthermore, all foreign agents are required to post a “conspicuous” statement on any communication intended for an audience of more than two people. The conspicuous statement must state that the information is being distributed in the interest of the foreign principal. Anyone covered by FARA who fails to register with the U.S. attorney general faces a criminal penalty of up to five years imprisonment, plus a fine of $10,000.

The specific statute invoked against the APSP defendants, 18 U.S.C. § 951, is slightly narrower, and requires the government to prove that the defendant “agree[d] to operate within the United States subject to the direction or control of a foreign government or official.” A violation of 18 U.S.C. § 951 carries a penalty of up to ten years in prison.

Because FARA is such an incredibly broad statute, and foreign agent allegations are so politically charged, they provide the United States government with a very powerful weapon that it has consistently used to criminalize and chill domestic anti-war and progressive organizing. The fact that it is unclear what constitutes a “request” from a foreign principal or intermediary adds to the dangerousness of FARA. Since its enactment in 1938, FARA has been deployed to silence, burden and criminalize international solidarity.

In 1951, FARA was used against W.E.B. Du Bois, when he was accused of being an agent of the Soviet Union because he had distributed copies of the Stockholm Appeal, which urged the public to support a ban on nuclear weapons. FARA has also been used to repress international solidarity organizations, including the Irish Northern Aid Committee, the Palestine Information Office, and the Committee in Solidarity with the People of El Salvador (CISPES).

FARA was also invoked against one of the co-founders of the National Lawyers Guild, Victor Rabinowitz, because his law firm had been retained as legal counsel by the Republic of Cuba. More recently, FARA has also been used against environmental organizations and advocacy groups, in particular Earthjustice and the Natural Resources Defense Council, both of which are 501(c)(3) non-profit organizations.

In the case of the African Peoples Socialist Party, the specific conduct that the APSP members are alleged to have engaged in does not include any acts of violence, election fraud, espionage, nor any other threat to public safety. In fact, the Department of Justice has not even alleged that the APSP members interacted directly with the Russian government, but rather that they received alleged requests and donations from an intermediary, Aleksandr Ionov, and his organization called the Anti-Globalization Movement in Russia.

The indictment accuses the APSP members of doing the following: accepting an invitation for an all-expenses paid trip to an international conference in Moscow, circulating a petition regarding the genocide of Africans in the United States after being encouraged to do so by Ionov, accepting funding for a four-city speaking tour to discuss the petition, allowing Ionov to speak at an event, and publishing articles as well as speaking out on topics suggested by Ionov, in support of the Russian government.

These charges also come in the context of broader efforts on the part of the U.S. government to stoke fears that China and Russia are attempting to influence domestic politics. For months, the Department of Justice has pushed for increasingly belligerent policies, targeting people who oppose the State Department’s aggression towards those countries.

On Monday, April 17, the day immediately before the APSP indictments, Deputy Attorney General Lisa Monaco met with Ukrainian Prosecutor General Andriy Kostin, and publicly vowed to “dedicate more resources to ensuring accountability and to combating those that facilitate the Russian war machine.” In the week after these remarks, not only were the APSP members formally indicted, but the Department of Justice issued multiple additional indictments of people accused of violating Russia-Ukraine sanctions.

Meanwhile, the Department of Justice’s consistent anti-China rhetoric also came to a head last week. The government arrested two men in New York City who allegedly ran an oversea police station for the Chinese government to “intimidate dissidents” and indicted over 40 people located within China itself, using the same regurgitated rhetoric of fake social media accounts which the U.S. invoked against Russia in 2016.

But as with the indictment of the APSP leadership, in all cases, the U.S. hides behind wild accusations of foreign influence and state repression in order to misdirect attention away from political repression right here at home. Progressive forces should unite in demanding that the federal government cease its targeting of Black organizers and stop using baseless “foreign agent” accusations to undermine international solidarity.

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