Signs at the action, the second in two weeks, included: “Banks block me from sending money to my family” and “U.S. Government should respect the agony of East African women and children and allow money to be sent to them.”
The banks refuse to work with Somali money transfer firms because the U.S. government has been prosecuting people under the Patriot Act for allegedly sending money to al-Shabab, an armed Islamist group in Somalia. The group is at war with the U.S.-backed Transitional Federal Government, which controls Mogadishu, the country’s capital.
The 2001 Patriot Act, recently renewed for four years under the Obama administration, prohibits “material support” to “designated foreign terrorist organizations.”
Following a massive FBI frame-up operation last fall two Somali women from Rochester, Minn., were convicted of conspiracy to funnel money through the money transfer firms, known as hawalas, to al-Shabab. One was convicted of transferring $8,600 to al-Shabab. The two could face a maximum of 30 years in prison. Government evidence was based on wiretapping and unconstitutional searches of their computers, homes and trash.
Families dependent on remittancesSomalis at the demonstration said that in many cases family members are dependent on the remittances for food, rent, medical care and other basic necessities of life. Somalia has not had a functioning central government for more than two decades. Living standards of most of the population have been ravaged by a continuing civil war. In recent years a combination of drought and high food prices has brought famine to many in the country.
“This is a moral issue,” Omar Omar, a young worker and student in Minneapolis, told the Militant. “Somalia has had the worst drought in 60 years. We support our families. Many of us send one-third of our income.”
Without bank accounts, the money transfer firms have no legal standing and cannot function. As of Dec. 30, the one bank in Minnesota that has conducted business with the hawalas discontinued its relationship and all 15 Somali hawalas in Minnesota ceased to operate.
One hawala announced Jan. 6 it would continue to operate through banks in other states, but only for emergencies and for sums less than $500.
Somalis at the demonstration explained that without the hawalas there is no practical way to send money to their relatives in Somalia, since there is no functioning banking system in the country.
“There are no other ways,” Ali Ibrahim, a teacher in Minneapolis, stated. “People in this country from any national origin should be able to send money to relatives in other parts of the world. This is not a Somali or East African question but a question of values.”
“Hawalas are the lifeline of Somalia, since in Somalia there are no banks,” said Saddiq Warfa, who chaired the rally.
“We are Americans” was one of the loudest chants at the protest. “Guilt by association is not a right policy” was one of the most prevalent signs.
“Collective punishment”“This is a matter of collective punishment,” said Abdirahman Abdi, 25, an interpreter. “We can’t do anything else. There is no government and no banks.”
The protest was sponsored by the Somali American Money Services Association, which represents the money-wiring businesses. Participants came from a broad spectrum of occupations, social classes and organizations.
Sunrise Community bank has been meeting with community leaders and government officials to seek a waiver from the U.S. Department of the Treasury and from the U.S. Department of Justice.
B. Todd Jones, U.S. District Attorney for Minnesota said a waiver isn’t possible. “The Department of Justice doesn’t give anyone a free pass right up front for possible future criminal activity. Federal prosecutors don’t give waivers.”
Most speakers at the rally pointed to the banks as the source of the problem. U.S. Rep. Keith Ellison, as well as Democratic state representatives Karen Clark and Jeff Hayden, who promised to continue to seek waivers from the federal government, echoed this view. Ellison is co-chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus.
Aman Obsiye, a leader of United Somali Movement, was more direct. “The banks are not the problem. The banks are just businesses,” he said. “The problem is the U.S. government, whose rules don’t allow the banks to operate. The problem is the U.S. Department of the Treasury and the U.S. Department of Justice. We have to tell the FBI to get off our backs. Let’s direct our protest to the FBI and to the Treasury.” His comments drew applause from many of the demonstrators.
Another protest is scheduled for Friday, Jan. 13 in front of the Wells Fargo bank in downtown Minneapolis.
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