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Radhika Sainath: The Indian American Legal Eagle Picks Up the Gauntlet to Defend the Rights of Palestine Advocates

Radhika Sainath: The Indian American Legal Eagle Picks Up the Gauntlet to Defend the Rights of Palestine Advocates

  • A senior staff attorney at Palestine Legal, she has been doing groundbreaking legal work on free speech, censorship and the right to boycott.

Since the Oct. 7 Hamas attack on Israel, Radhika Sainath has seen an exponential surge in requests for legal help. Palestine Legal, an advocacy group, where she is a senior staff attorney, has received over 400 calls from lawyers, doctors, journalists, professors, teachers, students, and other workers in nonprofits, government, and the corporate world. These people have been “fired, doxxed, canceled, censored, and physically threatened for speaking out for Palestinian freedom, or criticizing Israel or not sufficiently marching in lockstep behind Israel’s action,” the Indian American activist attorney wrote in the Boston Review.

Palestine Legal, an organization that protects the constitutional and civil rights of people in the U.S. who speak out for Palestinian freedom, was founded almost a decade ago in 2012. Sainath joined a year later. The Newport Beach, California, native works out of the group’s New York City office. She oversees the organization’s “groundbreaking legal work on free speech, censorship, and the right to boycott,” according to its website. Together with the Center for Constitutional Rights, she brought a landmark lawsuit against Fordham University in August 2019, after it refused to grant club status to Students for Justice in Palestine.

Following the outbreak of the Gaza war, Sainath spoke with The New York Times about the letter sent by the Anti-Defamation League and the Louis D. Brandeis Center for Human Rights Under Law to nearly 200 college presidents “urging them to investigate campus chapters of Students for Justice in Palestine for potential violations of federal and state laws against providing material support to terrorism.” According to her, “the mass violation of students’ rights,” called by the ADL is “reminiscent of the post 9/11 environment, but with a more intensely Palestinian twist.” 

Even though the Palestinian activists “pose zero threat and have done nothing but engage in speech 100 percent protected by the First Amendment,” Sainath told The Times that “if  federal and state governments follow through on the ADL’s demands, Palestinian activists will be subjected to an increase in surveillance, infiltration and investigation.”

In the Boston Review article, Sainath mentions that the organization’s clients  “range for targets,” spanning from Starbucks workers, Harvard students, MSNBC reporters, Pulitzer Prize winners, editors of science journals, etc. “This repression amounts to a McCarthyite backlash,” she continues. “The climate of censorship, suppression, and intimidation resembles the aftermath of 9/11; it is what the CCR [Center for Constitutional Rights] and we at Palestine Legal have called the “Palestine exception to free speech”—the “real cancel culture,” or whatever you want to call it—in action.” With the continued “ethnic cleansing” of Palestinians, she stresses the dire need to understand that “the underlying erasure of Palestinian suffering that undergirds all of this is a form of anti-Palestinian racism.” 

Sainath laments the lack of conversation on the topic, and wonders if an “open and informed debate,” would drive U.S. policy change. “Would our elected officials stay Israeli airstrikes? Might we be able to stop the ongoing killing and prevent the mass tragedy unfolding before us? Free speech on behalf of Palestinian rights has never been more important than it is now.”

“If you are a Palestinian in the U.S. speaking out for Palestinian rights, you can expect to be censored and slandered. This isn’t just an affront to free speech — it’s often a manifestation of anti-Palestinian racism.”

A Nov. 1 article she wrote for The Jacobian talks about how censorship of Palestinian rights advocacy isn’t just a free speech issue — it’s often a manifestation of anti-Palestinian racism. “If you are a Palestinian in the U.S. speaking out for Palestinian rights, you can expect to be censored and slandered. This isn’t just an affront to free speech — it’s often a manifestation of anti-Palestinian racism.”

Sainath has worked on international human rights issues for years. Her parents are immigrants from India, and her “motivation to work for social justice” is affected by her identity and “India’s history of non-violent resistance,” she told Andrew Cohen in a May 4, 2008 interview in Berkley Review. At the time, she was a student at the UC Berkeley School of Law. During her time at Berkley Law, she worked at the ACLU, the Center for Constitutional Rights, and the Asian American Legal Defense Fund on issues relating to national security, war crimes, free speech, and immigrant rights.

Not the one to shy away from difficult human rights conflicts, her social justice endeavors have taken her to various parts of the world. She has been tear-gassed, arrested, interrogated, and jailed. In 2012, she was arrested and deported from Bahrain while working with a human rights group there. She was part of an eight-member National Lawyers Guild delegation that visited Pakistan in January 2008, just days after the assassination of Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto on Dec. 27, 2007.

After she was sent back to the U.S. from Bahrain, Sainath told the Los Angeles Times that she went to the country with Witness Bahrain, a group of observers that supports the Bahraini opposition. She was “tweeting updates from the sidelines of a peaceful march toward Pearl Roundabout, when tear gas canisters started whizzing by.” 

When the gas began to clear, she told the LA Times that she “found herself surrounded by police.” They took her to the police station and questioned her on and off for several hours, asking who invited her to the protests. According to the Associated Press, officials accused her and another American activist of violating tourist visa rules by joining the protests ‘in order to report on them’ for websites and social media.

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In Pakistan, Sainath and the group “examined how Musharraf’s declaration of a state of emergency on Nov. 3—when he suspended the constitution and unilaterally removed more than 60 high court judges—affected Pakistan’s developing democracy,” according to the Berkley Law website. They visited “four cities and interviewed more than 50 jurists, lawyers, civil servants, journalists, political party representatives, elected officials, students, activists and others,” the article added. 

Before joining Palestine Legal, Sainath litigated civil rights cases in Los Angeles, and worked with the International Solidarity Movement (ISM), a Palestinian-led, nonviolent resistance movement, in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. She has organized union textile workers in East Coast factories and the Los Angeles garment district, monitored human-rights abuses of indigenous villagers during the 2000 Mexico elections, and spent a year volunteering for the International Solidarity Movement in the West Bank. 

Sainath is a graduate of the University of California, Berkeley, School of Law and the University of California, San Diego. Before attending law school, Radhika organized workers across the U.S. and Canada with the Union of Needletrades, Industrial, and Textile Employees (now UNITE-HERE). She organized factory workers across the country with UNITE HERE! 

Her writing has appeared in several publications, and she co-edited a book on the International Solidarity Movement (ISM) called “Peace Under Fire.” She’s also currently working on her first novel, which is set in Palestine during the Second Intifada.

Top photo, Radhika Sainath, courtesy of Orange Custard Design Studio.

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