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CAUT Bulletin Archives

January 2009

ACLU Wins Judicial Review in Visa Case

A United States federal court has ruled that it has the power to review whether the Bush administration has a valid reason for denying a visa to respected South Afri­can scholar Adam Habib.

Habib is a sought-after political analyst and deputy vice-chancellor of research, innovation and advan­ce­ment at the University of Johannes­burg. He is also a Muslim who has been a vocal critic of the war in Iraq and some U.S. terrorism-related policies. He has repeatedly condemned terrorism while urging governments to respond to the terror threat with policies that are consistent with human rights norms and the rule of law.

In October 2006, Habib travelled to the U.S. for a series of meetings he intended to have with represen­tatives of the National Institutes for Health, the Centers for Disease Con­trol and Prevention, the World Bank, Colum­bia University and the Gates Foundation. He was detained when he landed in New York and interrogated for several hours about his associations and political views before being deported back to South Africa. The State Department later revoked the visas of Habib’s wife and children without any explanation.

In May 2007, Habib applied for a new visa for speaking engagements in the U.S. but his application was denied by the State Department, which claimed he had “engaged in terrorist activities.” U.S. authorities provided no basis for the allegation. Until October 2006, Habib had never had difficulty en­tering the U.S. Habib had in fact lived in New York with his family for years while earning a PhD in political science from the City University of New York.

The American Civil Liberties Union filed a lawsuit in September 2007 on behalf of several organizations who invited Habib to speak in the U.S., challenging the State Department’s refusal to grant Habib a visa based on unsubstantiated national security claims.

Last month, Judge George O’Toole of the Massachusetts district court ruled that the First Amendment requires the government to provide a valid, substantiated reason for ex­cluding a scholar invited to speak to U.S. audiences. The ruling allows ACLU’s challenge to move forward.

Melissa Goodman, a staff attorney with ACLU’s National Security Project, said O’Toole’s decision is major victory for judicial review and a significant blow to the administration’s failed attempt at stifling debate by banning a prominent critic of U.S. policy.

“The ruling reaffirms that the Bush administration cannot manipulate immigration laws to silence critics of U.S. government policy and then shield their actions from scrutiny by the courts,” she said.

“We are gratified that the court ruled that this case can go forward,” said Sally Hillsman, executive officer of the American Sociological Association. “The government’s actions have already prevented Professor Habib from attending two American Sociological Association conferences. We believe that the global exchange of knowledge is vital to the advancement of science and we are hopeful the ruling will facilitate the free exchange of ideas.”

Critics of the Bush administration’s programs say Habib’s exclusion is part of a larger pattern. Over the past few years, numerous foreign scholars, human rights acti­vists and writers — all vocal critics of U.S. policy — have been barred from the U.S. without explanation, or on va­gue national security grounds.