Lawyers for the People's Mojahedin Organization of Iran made their latest pitch to an appeals court in Washington today, trying to convince the panel that the group has disavowed violence and should no longer be designated a foreign terrorist organization.
Mayer Brown partner Andrew Frey, arguing for the PMOI in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit, praised the organization as a democratic, secular group that has not engaged in a terrorist act for eight years—giving it what Frey called a “clean” record. More than 100 spectators, many in support of the PMOI, attended argument today.
The State Department declined to revoke the terrorist organization designation last year, marking the latest rejection for the PMOI, which was founded in 1965 and first designated a terrorist organization in 1997. Federal laws allow organizations to petition the State Department for review. Challenges are directly appealed to the D.C. Circuit.
Part of the problem for the PMOI, according to Frey, is the fact the government has kept to itself classified information that the State Department used to make its determination that the PMOI should remain a foreign terrorist organization. Frey argued the PMOI didn’t have an adequate chance to defend itself in the administrative proceedings.
Judge Karen LeCraft Henderson, sitting with Judge David Tatel and Senior Judge Stephen Williams, said the court could rely solely on the classified record to make its ruling. Frey urged the appeals court to examine the entire record. He said the information in the unclassified portion of the record does not support the continued designation of the PMOI as a foreign terrorist organization. Frey said in court papers that the PMOI has been removed from terrorist organization lists in the United Kingdom European Union.
Justice Department lawyer Douglas Letter, terrorism litigation counsel in the Civil Division, argued for the State Department. Letter and Tatel got into a brief back-and-forth about the extent to which the PMOI’s past should have any bearing on whether it currently has the intent and capacity to commit terrorist acts.
Letter is intimately familiar with the PMOI, having argued for the government in three other cases in the D.C. Circuit where the PMOI has sought the revocation of its designation as a foreign terrorist organization. The D.C. Circuit in 1999, 2001 and 2003 ruled against the PMOI. Henderson and Williams have both served on panels in earlier cases that ruled against the PMOI.
Tatel said he didn’t think the past was relevant in the case since the State Department must base its decision on the present state of affairs. Letter disagreed, saying an analysis of whether an organization’s circumstances have changed necessarily means that the past is part of the equation. Designation as a foreign terrorist organization carries consequences that include blocked financial transactions and removal of members from the United States.
After the public court session wrapped up, the appeals court heard argument for about 10 minutes in a closed hearing to discuss classified material. Frey and other lawyers for PMOI—attorneys from Hogan & Hartson and Greenberg Traurig— were not allowed to remain in the courtroom.