A federal judge has ruled that the United States government acted legally when it denied a visa to Tariq Ramadan, a prominent European Muslim scholar, because he had donated money to an organization that passed some of its funds to the Palestinian militant group Hamas.
In the ruling, handed down on Thursday, Judge Paul A. Crotty of the U.S. District Court in New York said the law leaves Mr. Ramadan with the "heavy burden" of having to "prove a negative": that he was unaware his money was going to the militant group.
The judge also said that court's jurisdiction over consular decisions was extremely limited. "Once the consular official has made his decision, it is not the court's role to second-guess the result," Judge Crotty said
Thursday's decision dismisses a lawsuit filed in January 2006 by the American Civil Liberties Union on behalf of the American Association of University Professors, Mr. Ramadan, and two other plaintiffs. The plaintiffs argued that the State Department and the Department of Homeland Security had violated their First Amendment "right to hear" Mr. Ramadan's ideas on American campuses. (Mr. Ramadan, the judge pointed out, has no First Amendment rights himself as a foreign citizen with no visa.)
The plaintiffs argued that Mr. Ramadan, a Swiss citizen, was barred from the country because of a provision in the USA Patriot Act that allows the government to bar any foreign citizen who "endorses or espouses terrorist activity or persuades others to endorse or espouse terrorist activity." The plaintiffs challenged the constitutionality of that provision, which was cited by a Department of Homeland Security spokesman early on in the scholar's long saga of visa troubles.
Judge Crotty, however, said the Patriot Act provision was not the real reason for the chilly reception Mr. Ramadan received from U.S. consular officers, and hence its constitutionality was not on the table.
Mr. Ramadan, a research fellow studying Islam and philosophy at Oxford University, was hired to a tenured position at the University of Notre Dame in 2004. Just a few days before he was set to arrive on the Indiana campus, however, the State Department revoked his work visa. The department did not offer an explanation for the decision, but a Homeland Security spokesman referred to the "endorse or espouse" provision in the Patriot Act as justification for the last-minute reversal.
That December, after facing long delays as the State Department processed a second work-visa application, Mr. Ramadan resigned from the post at Notre Dame.
He then applied for a different visa to allow him to travel to the United States for academic events, as he had done frequently until 2004. As part of that visa application process, in 2005, Mr. Ramadan had to sit for several interviews with American immigration officials in Bern, Switzerland.
According to the text of yesterday's ruling, during those interviews Mr. Ramadan told American consular officers that he had donated just over $1,000 to a group called Association de Secours Palestinien between 1998 and 2002.
In 2003, a year after Mr. Ramadan made his last donation, the U.S. government listed that group as a "specially designated global terrorist" because it gave "material support" to Hamas.
Thursday's ruling quotes a letter Mr. Ramadan received from an American consular officer in September 2006, explaining the reasons for his final visa denial. The letter mentions Mr. Ramadan's donations to the Association de Secours Palestinien—a group the scholar has described in an essay for The Chronicle as a "Palestinian support group" that is still recognized by the Swiss government as a legitimate charity. Mr. Ramadan said he did not know of any connection between the group and Hamas.
The letter then goes on to say that Mr. Ramadan "reasonably should have known" that the organization "provided funds to Hamas," and that he was permanently ineligible for a U.S. visa.
The plaintiffs argued that Mr. Ramadan was being punished retroactively for having given money to an organization that was only later blacklisted by the United States. However, Judge Crotty said that the charge of giving "material support" to terrorist groups may, in fact, be applied retroactively.
The American Civil Liberties Union, which represented the plaintiffs in the case, called the ruling "legally wrong and deeply unjust."
"In our view, the government's stated reason for excluding him is just a pretext," said Jameel Jaffer, director the ACLU's National Security Project, in a written statement. Mr. Jaffer said that Mr. Ramadan "is being excluded not because of his actions, but because of his ideas."