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Reading news accounts about the travails of Faith Fippinger, John Gurley knew immediately that she would need counsel. “Whenever you hear someone saying, ‘I’m not going to pay,’ you know they’ll need representation,” says Gurley, an international trade lawyer in the D.C. office of Coudert Brothers. Fippinger, a 63-year-old retired teacher of blind children, was refusing to pay a possible federal fine. The U.S. Department of the Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) had threatened her with up to $1 million in penalties for having violated U.S. sanctions by traveling to Iraq during the war. Gurley and a team of Coudert lawyers now represent Fippinger. In February, Fippinger had traveled to Iraq from India, where she had been on a Buddhist spiritual retreat, to act as a so-called human shield. Fippinger has a history of social activism, but she says that until last year, her involvement was limited to letter writing and protest marching. But when Fippinger was in India searching the Internet for information on ways of protesting the U.S. involvement in Iraq, she came across a more radical approach. “I heard of the human shields,” she says, “and thought of stopping what I perceived as an unjust war by actually going to Iraq.” The shields movement consisted of civilians protesting the war by placing themselves at potential bomb sites. About 300 people — 20 of whom were American — went to Iraq to become shields. Fippinger flew to Amman, Jordan (a common point of entry to the Middle East for shields), on Feb. 15, and then took ground transportation to Baghdad, where a local nongovernmental organization provided her with transportation and protection. Some shields left before actual battle ensued, and some, like Fippinger, stayed until it was over (though she says she was never actually in an area under bombardment). Fippinger initially went to a village by an oil refinery. She says the site attracted her both because the refinery had burned for 45 days in the 1991 Gulf War and because the community had a nursery and school where she could draw on her extensive experience with children. In the course of her time in Iraq, Fippinger also traveled to hospitals. Her voice quavers when describing the sight of limbless civilians and children orphaned by the war — what she calls “witnessing the horror, pain, and torment of innocent victims of war.” Fippinger says she assisted in hospitals doing whatever was needed, sometimes simply holding the wounded and dying. She returned to the United States on May 4, just days after President George W. Bush declared the end of major combat in Iraq, because, she says, “it was time to tell what I had witnessed.” A letter from the government awaited Fippinger upon her return to Florida. It was a request for information from OFAC, asking that she furnish the office with the exact purpose and details of her trip to Iraq. The U.S. sanctions against Iraq, instituted after the first Gulf War, prohibited Americans from traveling there without express governmental permission. The sanctions also made any sort of commerce or business transactions with Iraq illegal. Technically, any human shield who purchased food or supplies while in Iraq was thereby in violation of both the travel and the economic sanctions. Fippinger says she had no idea that her travel to Iraq for humanitarian purposes violated the law. (According to Treasury spokesperson Taylor Griffin, the government has 11 trade sanction violation cases against corporations involved with Iraq, and is investigating five individuals who allegedly went to Iraq as human shields; the government concedes that its system of finding such individuals is somewhat haphazard.) This summer it became very public that the government was taking the restrictions against travel and commerce in Iraq seriously. When Richard Leiby, a Washington Post reporter, returned from Iraq in July, customs officials at Dulles International Airport seized notebooks and a serving tray he had received from an Iraqi source. The story soon hit the news. Coudert’s Gurley, who admits his international trade practice doesn’t afford many pro bono opportunities, realized his expertise dovetailed with Leiby’s case and reached out to him. Gurley and Matthew McConkey, of counsel at Coudert, filed a petition with the Bureau of Customs and Border Protection, taking the position that because the tray was a gift and a household item, it fell under an exception to the prohibition against importing goods from Iraq. That matter was swiftly resolved, with customs returning the tray and notebooks to Leiby. It was only a few weeks later that Gurley read about Fippinger’s case and saw another pro bono client on the horizon. Fippinger had responded to the government’s information request in late May and was the subject of several news stories during the summer. Gurley wrote Fippinger a letter on Aug. 14, suggesting that she consider allowing him to take on her case. Fippinger says she had received other offers from attorneys, and though she had not heard of Coudert Brothers, Gurley sounded “sincere,” and the firm “seemed very knowledgeable with this kind of thing.” Little did she know that she was getting a team of six lawyers who deal with the Treasury Department and OFAC on a regular basis. According to Gurley, the firm regularly obtains licenses from OFAC for corporate clients seeking to do business in sanctioned countries such as Cuba or Iran. And according to D.C. managing partner Tara Giunta, the firm had no qualms about the representation. “We don’t see this as a political issue,” says Giunta. “We’re just representing someone who needs help.” And the firm is in somewhat familiar territory, as it has represented individuals in alleged violation of U.S. sanctions against Cuba on a pro bono basis. Giunta says Coudert looked into potential conflicts of interest with its commercial clients but found none. For his part, Gurley wasn’t concerned about ruffling any feathers. “Practicing law before government agencies, you are often taking adverse positions,” he says. “I don’t think they’re going to take this personally.” So far the firm has asked OFAC to direct correspondence regarding Fippinger’s case to Coudert, and has suggested that the agency drop this case. Gurley expects to receive a so-called prepenalty notice, in which the government sets forth its penalty. Meanwhile, he seeks complete vindication for Fippinger. Treasury’s Griffin says he does not anticipate criminal actions in the human shields’ cases, adding that about a half-dozen violations are cited each week on violations of Cuba sanctions, and those are typically settled with fines. According to Gurley, fines for individuals violating Cuba’s travel restrictions are usually below $10,000. Griffin, the government’s spokesman, defends the sanctions as necessary to protect Americans abroad. “If you’re going to have laws and not enforce them,” says Griffin, “then why have laws?” Some critics argue the government has “selectively prosecuted” the human shields. Griffin chafes at the suggestion. “It’s easier to get caught,” he quips, “when you broadcast that you violated the law.” But speaking out against perceived injustice is the entire point for many of these protesters. Given the opportunity to do it again, Fippinger says she would go back to Iraq. While she’s home, however, she can rely on Coudert as her legal shield. Robert Lennon is a reporter at The American Lawyer, where this article first appeared in the November issue.

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