To hear her lawyers tell it, Zeinab Taleb-Jedi is a frail, middle-aged widow caught up in the government's war on terror for little more than teaching English.
The 53-year-old U.S. citizen, who lives in a homeless shelter in New York, faces up to 15 years in prison on terrorism charges that accuse her of being one of the alleged leaders of an Iraqi-based militant group that advocates the overthrow of the Iranian government.
Her case has prompted constitutional challenges to the federal laws on the material support for terrorism as well as claims from civil liberties advocates that her prosecution amounts to little more than allegations of guilt by association. A federal judge in Brooklyn is expected to decide soon whether to dismiss the charges.
"She is being prosecuted for allegedly teaching English and because a witness says she was a member of a leadership counsel. There's no allegation of violence or decision making concerning acts of violence," said Florian Miedel, one of Taleb-Jedi's lawyers. "It's mind-boggling to us."
In an unusual twist, the organization that Taleb-Jedi is accused of helping to lead, Mujahedin-e Khalq, appears to have some interests in common with the Bush administration. The group, which was designated by the U.S. State Department as a terrorist organization in 1997, advocates regime change in Iran.
A recent New Yorker article by Seymour Hersh reported that the CIA and special operations communities have long-standing ties to the group, known as the MEK.
"In recent years the group has received arms and intelligence, directly or indirectly, from the United States," the article says.
"The most puzzling aspect of this case is that she is charged with providing material support to an organization that is dedicated to overthrowing the Iranian regime," said Miedel.
According to court documents, Taleb-Jedi taught English at the group's Iraq headquarters, known as Camp Ashraf, and translated documents. Two confidential informants have also identified her as a member of the group's leadership counsel, according to FBI documents.
But in court papers, defense attorneys claim the government has not said what Taleb-Jedi has done to support terrorism, other than teach English, which would not be illegal were the group not labeled as a terrorist organization.
Though the constitution provides the right to join political groups, federal law makes it illegal to provide material support, including personnel, to groups that the State Department has designated terrorist organizations.
"But material support has been defined extremely broadly," said David Cole, a professor at Georgetown Law School and a former attorney for the Center for Constitutional Rights, a liberal advocacy group, who has challenged material support laws.
"People who support the terror activities of a group should be punished," he said. "But the danger is that the statute is written so broadly and the government has interpreted it so expansively that it punishes not only terrorists or people who support terror but people who never supported a terrorist act."
The federal prosecutor in the case had no comment, referring questions to a spokesman who also declined to comment.