Criminal Justice

Americans joining fight in Ukraine could risk prosecution under Neutrality Act

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The rarely enforced Neutrality Act could pose risks for Americans who decide to join the fight against Russia in Ukraine.

The law bars people who are in the United States from joining foreign armies or launching their own wars against nations that are at peace with the United States, Just Security reports in an article by Dakota S. Rudesill, a professor at Ohio State University’s Moritz College of Law.

“The United States today is not in an armed conflict with Russia,” Rudesill wrote. “The risk remains that well-intentioned Americans could blunder into committing a crime.”

Those who violate the law could receive a sentence of up to three years in prison, Reuters reports. Although the law could apply to Americans fighting against Russia, it has rarely been used in modern history, according to David Malet, a professor at the American University, who spoke with Reuters.

“Absent links to domestic terrorism, it’s hard for me to imagine Americans being prosecuted for going to Ukraine,” Malet said.

The law was enacted at the request of former President George Washington, according to Just Security.

“The founding generation’s concern was that individual Americans attacking foreign states could draw the new nation into war with dangerous European powers. Ever since, in evolving form through a series of amendments, and with varying enforcement, the United States has kept this ban on the books,” the blog said.

Section 960 of the law has been used to prosecute a handful of U.S. citizens in recent decades, the Lawfare blog reported in 2020.

It provides: “Whoever, within the United States, knowingly begins or sets on foot or provides or prepares a means for or furnishes the money for, or takes part in, any military or naval expedition or enterprise to be carried on from thence against the territory or dominion of any foreign prince or state, or of any colony, district or people with whom the United States is at peace, shall be fined under this title or imprisoned not more than three years or both.”

According to Reuters and the Lawfare blog, those prosecutions include:

• The prosecution in 1981 of 10 people who hoped to overthrow the republic of Dominica.

• The prosecution of 11 people accused of conspiring to overthrow the Laotian communist government in 2007.

• The prosecution of several American involved in a failed coup in Gambia in 2014.

• The 2019 prosecution of two men accused of killing and robbing a Florida couple to help fund a fight against the government in Venezuela.

Just Security noted an exemption in the law. The law’s ban on joining foreign armies while within the United States means that Americans could avoid prosecution by signing up to help Ukraine while outside the country.

Just Security also noted that Congress could pass legislation that would allow Americans to fight in the war or that would ban them from doing so.

Two lawmakers recently introduced legislation in Congress that would allow U.S. citizens to fight for Ukraine, report KOKH, KXII and Koco News 5.

A co-sponsor is Republican U.S. Rep. Victoria Spartz of Indiana, who is Ukrainian American.

“This bill would waive criminal liabilities for the good-hearted freedom-loving Americans who would like to volunteer with the Ukrainian people in their fight for freedom,” she said in a statement.

See also: “Ukraine asks international courts to rule against Russia for its ‘brutal invasion,’ with one quick success” “Law firms scramble to keep pace with unprecedented Russian sanctions” “Russia is no-show at international court hearing on Ukraine invasion” “Ukrainian bar leaders share experience on the ground amid Russian invasion” “White House should give temporary protected status to Ukrainian refugees and immigrants, ABA president urges”

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