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Rights Group Says Government Requirements and Penalties Against Cuba Travelers Unconstitutional

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CONTACT: press@ccrjustice.org

July 16, 2009, New York, NY – Today, the Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR) and co-counsel Sokolski & Zekaria, P.C. filed a lawsuit in federal district court in Brooklyn, New York challenging the government’s attempt to fine individuals thousands of dollars for failing to fill out a self-incriminating questionnaire, as part of its efforts to stifle American travel to Cuba.  

In what attorneys call “blatant disregard for the Constitution’s Fifth Amendment protection against self-incrimination and Eighth Amendment prohibition against excessive fines,” the Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) requires people suspected of having traveled to Cuba to disclose detailed information about the alleged travel, under the threat of monetary penalties and potential jail time.

“The vindictive tactics of OFAC are nothing short of bullying,” said plaintiff and CCR client Zachary Sanders. “In the spirit of progress and forward thinking, the U.S.’s restrictions on travel to Cuba and petty policies that perpetuate outdated Cold War ideology should be repealed.”  

In 2000, OFAC accused Mr. Sanders of having gone to Cuba without authorization.  Mr. Sanders refused to answer OFAC’s “Requirement to Furnish Information” about the trip and challenged the legality of OFAC’s actions in administrative proceedings.  An administrative law judge rejected Mr. Sanders’ claims, ordering him to pay a $1,000 fine – not for having travelled to Cuba, but for failing to acquiesce to OFAC’s demands.  Mr. Sanders appealed the fine this past fall but, on the Bush administration’s final day, the Department of Treasury rejected his plea and raised his penalty to $9,000.  

“Although the Obama administration relaxed Bush-era restrictions on Cuban-Americans’ ability to visit family in Cuba, it has done nothing to end the travel restrictions generally or to change OFAC’s unlawful practices,” said CCR attorney Anjana Samant. “What happened to Mr. Sanders could happen to anyone else.”

The lawsuit comes days before over 140 members of the Venceremos Brigade embark for Cuba as part of the group’s 40th anniversary of traveling to the country as an act of civil disobedience as a challenge to the trade blockade.  Said Diego Iniguez-Lopez of the Brigade, who is going on the trip, “The Venceremos Brigade is going to Cuba this year asserting our constitutional right to travel to Cuba while showing our solidarity with the Cuban people against the travel restrictions and economic embargo, which for close to 50 years have closed off valuable dialogue and exchange between both countries' people."

OFAC, which is housed in the United States Department of the Treasury, enforces economic embargos and economic travel restrictions on Cuba.  While travel to Cuba is technically legal, travel restrictions placed by OFAC forbid Americans from spending any money while in Cuba.

Please note: Plaintiff Zachary Sanders is available to do interviews in Spanish as well as English.

The Center for Constitutional Rights is dedicated to advancing and protecting the rights guaranteed by the United States Constitution and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Founded in 1966 by attorneys who represented civil rights movements in the South, CCR is a non-profit legal and educational organization committed to the creative use of law as a positive force for social change.