July 8, 2008— -- 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.
In court papers, the government alleges that the MEK has raised millions of dollars in the United States and throughout the world, much of it through English-language fundraising. It also claims that witnesses have identified Taleb-Jedi as a member of the MEK's military leadership counsel.
"A federal grand jury returned an indictment against a United States citizen who liquefied her personal assets, abandoned her only child, left the United States -- the country to which she had only recently pledged an oath of allegiance -- and traveled to the other side of the globe to support a designated terrorist organization," government attorneys wrote.
During the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, coalition forces attacked and then took over Camp Ashraf. Taleb-Jedi says in court papers that she was forced to hide in a bunker as bombs fell overhead.
"The noise was overwhelming and frightening," she wrote. "The attacks terrified me."
In interviews with the FBI after a negotiated cease fire, Taleb-Jedi, who came to the U.S. in 1978 and became a citizen in 1996, said she came to the camp in 1999 to be close to her husband's grave, according to an FBI summary of the interviews. Her husband, also a member of the group, was killed during a roadside attack in Iraq in 1999.
She said she knew that the MEK was a designated terrorist organization but believed the label was unfair. Taleb-Jedi says the FBI interviews were coerced.
The group was founded in the 1960s to oppose the late Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi. According to the State Department, it was connected to the deaths of U.S. military contractors in the 1970s and supported the 1979 takeover of the U.S. Embassy in Iran.
The MEK fled to Iraq in the 1980s and has said it has renounced violence. When it was designated as a terrorist organization in 1997, more than 200 members of the U.S. House of Representatives wrote a letter opposing the decision.
When the U.S. raided Camp Ashraf, the FBI says it found mortars, missile launchers, tanks and more than 420,000 pounds of plastic explosives.
Taleb-Jedi returned to the U.S. in 2006. She was arrested at John F. Kennedy airport.
When she was released on $500,000 bail later that year, she weighed 95 pounds and suffered from what her lawyer described as malnutrition and severe digestive problems. She has spent most of the time since then living at a women's shelter in Manhattan.
"She doesn't have any money. She has no income," Miedel said in an earlier interview. "She doesn't have any kind of support."