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US ‘unconstitutional’ anti-BDS law challenged in Maryland court

February 13, 2019 at 3:22 pm

BDS march on 16 August 2014 [Alex Chis/Flickr]

A legal battle is underway in the US state of Maryland to reverse an anti-Boycott Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) legislation denounced as “unconstitutional”. Syed Saqib Ali – a former Maryland state representative – today filed a civil rights lawsuit against an executive order denying government contracts to businesses that boycott Israel.

The suit – filed in federal court – alleges that the Maryland leaders Gov. Larry Hogan and Attorney General Brian Frosh violated Ali’s First and 14th Amendment rights when Hogan signed an executive order in October 2017 requiring all state contractors to promise they will not boycott Israel.

In practice, the law has threatened the livelihood of US citizens who refuse to engage in commercial activities with settlements in the occupied Palestinian territories (oPt). Anti-BDS measures are seen as draconian, unconstitutional measures that punish US citizens for their adherence to international law against a foreign state in breach of international norms.

Ali became a victim of the anti-DBS law following an attempt to bid for government contracts. The Maryland resident works as a computer software engineer and occasionally seeks bids for government contracts as part of his profession, the suit states. Ali said Hogan’s executive order bars him from even submitting bids on certain software engineering projects advertised by Maryland agencies because of a requirement that he include a “No Boycott of Israel” certification along with his proposals. The anti-BDS legislation, Ali added, had impacted his livelihood and cost him thousands of dollars.

The lawsuit is seeking to have Hogan’s order declared unconstitutional and voided. It also demands financial reimbursement for legal fees.

Denouncing the anti-BDS measure as “unconstitutional,” Ali’s lawyers said a deep legacy of economic boycott to bring about social and political change existed in the American psyche. Pointing to the Boston Tea Party boycott, the Montgomery Bus boycott, grape boycott and boycott of Apartheid South Africa, Ali’s lawyer stressed that that the protection of free speech is sacrosanct in US politics.

READ: US federal judge dismisses lawsuit against BDS supporters

In recent years Ali has been a key advocate of BDS and organised “Freedom2Boycott in Maryland,” a coalition of state-wide grassroots activists opposed to Maryland’s legislative proposals targeting the BDS movement.

Explaining his reason for the lawsuit, he said: “What’s happening in Palestine is bad enough, but when American politicians started punishing Americans for supporting Palestinians, that was just the straw that broke the camel’s back. That was too much. I could not tolerate that and I could not abide that.”

The lawsuit against the Maryland governor is one of several attempts to reverse the anti-BDS laws being adopted across the US. Bahia Amawi, a children’s speech pathologist at a public school in Austin, Texas, is suing the state for violating her constitutionally-protected right to boycott. Amawi’s school declined to renew her contract, despite her decade of experience, after she refused to sign a pledge nearly identical to the one in Maryland.

Both Ali and Amawi are victims of a legal push by pro-Israel US lawmakers to criminalise BDS. Lawsuits are likely to follow in 25 US states that have passed anti-BDS measures similar to the state of Maryland. Last week, the US Senate added its weight to the pro-Israel campaign by approving  a bill to thwart BDS.

One lawmaker opposing the bill suggested that Israel was being granted special treatment. They said that Israel was getting $38 billion in US aid, despite many domestic priorities and added that he would “fiercely defend the constitutional right of any American citizen to express his or her views, just as [he] would support any American who chooses to support political boycott and peacefully express their political views without fear of being punished by their government”.

READ: Israel intelligence company pursued BDS activists