The Live & Living MDG5 Shadow Report in Asia!

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The Live & Living MDG5 Shadow Report in Asia!   The Live & Living MDG 5 Shadow Report is an interactive, web-based report on the progress of the Millennium Development Goals 3 & 5 in twelve countries in Asia. The countries covered include the South Asian countries of Bangladesh, India, Nepal and Pakistan; the Southeast Asian countries of Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines; the Mekong countries of Cambodia, Laos, Thailand and Vietnam as well as the East Asian country of China.  

The Live & Living MDG 5 Shadow Report is an interactive, web-based report on the progress of the Millennium Development Goals 3 & 5 in twelve countries in Asia. The countries covered include the South Asian countries of Bangladesh, India, Nepal and Pakistan; the Southeast Asian countries of Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines; the Mekong countries of Cambodia, Laos, Thailand and Vietnam as well as the East Asian country of China.  

This report aims to present alternative information on the progress/ lack of progress on MDGs 3 & 5. Reporting is based on the traditional UN indicators and additional critical indicators around MDGs 3 & 5.This report aims to contrast and compare national numeric reporting with local evidence and research to show where the gaps are.

More importantly, the space for NGOs to participate or to voice an alternative opinion to the reporting provided by governments is at a shameful minimal and the Live & Living MDG 5 Shadow Report serves as an internet campaign to remind governments and international agencies that women’s organisations and feminist organisations around the region are still watching them closely to see whether they will deliver on their promises on gender equality and universal access to reproductive health.

The objectives of this Live & Living MDG5 Shadow Report are:

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  1. To use technology as a platform to bring grassroots voices to the United Nations (UN)
  2. To hold governments accountable
  3. To bring information that is rights-based, women-centred and NGO-oriented
  4. To comprehensively monitor MDGs 3&5 in the 12 countries ARROW works in Asia.

This internet report-cum-campaign has been generated by the Asian-Pacific Resource & Research Centre for Women (ARROW) and her partners.  

WHAT YOU CAN DO :

  1. View the MDG5 Shadow Report at : http://www.mdg5watch.org
  2. Pass the word around – forward this email to as many people as you can !
  3. Contribute stories/ research from the ground on MDG 3 & 5 – we will publish it on our website ! Please contact : sulo.arrow@gmail.com
  4. We are happy to work with you to help set up an alternative shadow report on MDG 5 for your country! Please contact : sai@arrow.org.my and siva@arrow.org.my

 JOIN US IN MAKING THE MDGS MEANINGFUL FOR WOMEN!

 -Women are Watching their Governments-

Analysis Human Rights

Living in the Shadow of Counterterrorism: A Daily Struggle for Muslim Women

Kanya D’Almeida

In the second part of Rewire’s “Living in the Shadow of Counterterrorism” series, we look at how Muslim families, particularly women, are forced to confront state violence on a daily basis­­—from living with the stigma of terrorism, to repairing their broken homes, to navigating what they say is a brutal and biased prison system.

This is the second article in Rewire’s “Living in the Shadow of Counterterrorism” series. You can read the other pieces in the series here.

When Virginia native Mariam Abu-Ali was 14 years old, her life abruptly turned upside down. It was 2003, two years after the September 11 attacks and well into an era of counterterrorism tactics that were systematically hollowing out Muslim residents’ civil liberties and constitutional protections in the United States. But the Abu-Ali family never imagined they would be caught up in the dragnet.

Mariam’s then-22-year-old brother, Ahmed Omar, had been studying in Medina, Saudi Arabia, when he was arrested in connection with a series of May 2003 terrorist attacks in Riyadh.

In an interview with Rewire, Mariam says her brother, who was born in Texas, was held in solitary confinement in a Saudi jail for nearly two years without ever being charged with a crime. During that time, Mariam tells Rewire over the phone, there is strong evidence that he was tortured. Although defense expert Dr. Allen Keller, director of the Program for Survivors of Torture at the Bellevue/NYU Hospital, examined Ahmed and testified at his U.S. trial to the evidence of torture, an appeals court eventually ruled that Ahmed’s statements to Saudi interrogators were “voluntary.”

When, after months of legal pressure from his family, he was finally returned to the United States, a court for the Eastern District of Virginia charged him with multiple counts, including conspiring with an Al-Qaeda cell in Medina to carry out terrorist attacks on U.S. soil. Following a trial that permitted the admission of what Mariam called “a coerced confession,” he was eventually sentenced to 30 years in prison, and later re-sentenced to life.

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Yet as legal experts like Elaine Cassel, author of The War on Civil Liberties: How Bush and Ashcroft Dismantled the Bill of Rights, have pointed out, “Nowhere in the indictment [was] Abu-Ali tied to any terrorist event or action”—either in the United States or in Saudi Arabia.

Instead, his case fell under the shadowy material support statutes that have governed much of the United States’ counterterrorism operation in the years since 9/11, under the USA Patriot Act of 2001. This set of laws allows the U.S. government to preemptively prosecute individuals for engaging in terrorism based on their perceived predisposition toward violence, rather than their actions.

Over the past 15 years, hundreds of Muslims have disappeared in a warren of these convoluted laws; they are currently locked up in high-security prisons around the country.

A constellation of families, scholars, activists, and civil rights organizations have long challenged the effects of material support charges, as well as the unfair trials and the lengthy and harsh prison sentences that tend to follow them. Over the past few years, they have come together in a campaign called No Separate Justice, an attempt to unite far-flung groups and individuals who are working to dismantle what they say is a parallel and unjust legal system for Muslim residents in post-9/11 America.

Women like Mariam Abu-Ali have been at the forefront of the movement—along with Zurata Duka and Shahina Parveen, whose stories Rewire has previously reported on—advocating on behalf of their loved ones.

In the second part of Rewire’s “Living in the Shadow of Counterterrorism” series, we look at how families, particularly women, are forced to confront state violence on a daily basis­­—from living with the stigma of terrorism, to repairing their broken homes, to navigating what they say is a brutal and biased prison system.

“Dangerous” Minds, Draconian Measures

Mariam Abu-Ali says her brother’s case represents many of the civil rights violations that have marred the decade and a half since 9/11, a sentiment that is echoed in the final opinion on Ahmed Omar’s case penned by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit.

In its unanimous decision to uphold the guilty verdict on nine terrorism-related counts against Ahmed in 2008, the three-judge bench wrote:

Persons of good will may disagree over the precise extent to which the formal criminal justice process must be utilized when those suspected of participation in terrorist cells and networks are involved … the criminal justice system is not without those attributes of adaptation that will permit it to function in the post-9/11 world.

While the opinion does not explicitly state what these “attributes of adaptation” are, studies on counterterrorism indicate they could refer to any number of legal practices that have become normalized since September 11. In particular, they could refer to the use of material support statutes, which have played a significant role in the prosecution of Muslim Americans like Ahmed Omar.

As FBI Assistant Director Gary Bald testified to the Senate Committee on the Judiciary in 2004:

It would be difficult to overstate the importance of the material support statutes to our ongoing counterterrorism efforts. The statutes are sufficiently broad to include terrorist financers and supporters who provide a variety of resources to terrorist networks. The statutes provide the investigative predicate which allows intervention at the earliest possible stage of terrorist planning to identify and arrest terrorists and supporters before a terrorist attack occurs. [Emphasis added.]

In short, material support statutes have enabled federal authorities to prosecute people based on suspicion of what they might do in the future rather than any overt criminal act. The statutes primarily refer to “support” for terrorist networks as weapons, arms training, or direct funding. Prosecutors, courts, and juries, however, have interpreted the laws much more broadly to encompass the sharing of religious or political texts online, casual conversations between friends, or charitable donations to organizations in areas controlled by terrorist groups.

In many instances, material support charges have amounted to nothing more than thought crimes, in which law-abiding Muslim residents have been penalized simply for expressing their religious and political views.

According to a 2014 report by Human Rights Watch, material support cases rose sharply in the decade following the September 11 attacks. Prior to 9/11, just six individuals had been charged under these laws in the United States. In the decade following, 168 of 917 domestic terrorism convictions analyzed by HRW fell under such statutes, accounting for 18 percent of all terrorism-related convictions in that time period.

Even a cursory look at some of these cases is sufficient to grasp the breadth of these laws, which have pushed deep into Muslim communities, tearing through many layers of social fabric along the way.

In 2012, the New York Times published an op-ed by Yale professor Andrew March on the case of Tarek Mehanna, a Pittsburgh-born doctor and community leader who was sentenced to 17 and a half years in prison because his opinions about Islam, expressed online, were deemed a form of material support for terrorist causes.

March wrote in the Times:

As a political scientist specializing in Islamic law and war, I frequently read, store, share and translate texts and videos by jihadi groups. As a political philosopher, I debate the ethics of killing. As a citizen, I express views, thoughts and emotions about killing to other citizens. As a human being, I sometimes feel joy (I am ashamed to admit) at the suffering of some humans and anger at the suffering of others. At Mr. Mehanna’s trial, I saw how those same actions can constitute federal crimes.

March’s op-ed illustrates a frightening truth about material support statutes: They allow for the preemptive prosecution of individuals who have not yet committed a crime but whom the government deems capable of possibly committing a crime in the future.

Other cases, such as the Holy Land Five, demonstrate a pattern in which material support laws have essentially criminalized charitable giving. The case involved the founders of the Holy Land Foundation, a Muslim charity that provided humanitarian aid to the needy, including women and children in Palestine. Though the government concluded that the Holy Land Foundation never directly aided a terrorist organization, it nonetheless prosecuted five of its members for funneling aid through charitable committees into areas controlled by Hamas, a designated Palestinian terrorist group, thereby violating material support statutes. Journalists called the verdict an attack on Islam itself, particularly the practice of zakat, which mandates that Muslims allocate a portion of their wealth or earnings for charitable causes.

Because cases based on material support statutes tend to paint the accused as extremely dangerous persons, they are often accompanied by harsh conditions of confinement, both pretrial and following a conviction.

From its very inception, the No Separate Justice (NSJ) campaign has fought this flawed notion, with mothers and sisters of the accused becoming the movement’s most prominent spokespeople. NSJ initially coalesced around the case of a Muslim American named Fahad Hashmi.

Hashmi had been working toward a master’s degree in international relations at London Metropolitan University when he was arrested at Heathrow Airport in 2006. In 2007 he became the first U.S. citizen to be extradited following the loosening of restrictions around the process after 9/11, according to an article by Jeanne Theoharis, a political science professor at Brooklyn College and co-founder of the NSJ campaign, who taught Hashmi as an undergraduate.

He was initially held in pretrial solitary confinement at the Metropolitan Correction Center (MCC) in downtown Manhattan. MCC’s notoriety was cemented in a 2010 New York Times article that quoted a former Guantanamo detainee, who was also held at the MCC, as saying the Cuban military prison was “more pleasant” and “more relaxed” than the federal detention facility in New York City.

Hashmi was also subjected to special administrative measures, government restrictions on a terror suspect’s communications that amount to a gag order on the case and their conditions of confinement. Advocates say these were drastic measures relative to the charges against him: Hashmi’s only crime, according to Theoharis’ article, was allowing an acquaintance to spend a night in his apartment, an acquaintance who would later deliver a suitcase of raincoats and waterproof socks to Al Qaeda members. This same acquaintance would later become a cooperating witness for the government in exchange for a more lenient sentence, and testify against Hashmi in a trial that ended with a guilty verdict and a 15-year sentence.

Stunned by Hashmi’s conditions of confinement, a group called Theaters Against War linked arms with Educators for Civil Liberties and the Muslim Justice Initiative to host weekly vigils outside the MCC in 2009. These gatherings, which continue to this day, form the nucleus of the NSJ movement.

“We wanted to build a coalition so people from different backgrounds could bring their institutional expertise and moral conscience into the same arena as family members, and create a space where people could express outrage at what was happening,” Sally Eberhardt, one of NSJ’s earliest organizers, tells Rewire.

At first, larger civil liberties groups kept their distance, possibly because “this isn’t exactly the most funder-friendly issue in the world,” Eberhardt suggests. But advocates persisted, holding candlelight protests even on the bitterest winter nights, singing songs and chanting poems in the shadow of the detention center. Those intimate gatherings formed the basis of what is now a national movement, encompassing multiple organizations and dozens of families.

Two outspoken leaders are the Sadequee sisters, Bangladeshi Americans who have been among the strongest advocates of prisoners’ rights and the most public critics of the government’s targeting of Muslim men—including their brother, Shifa.

From the Streets to the Prayer Rug: Pushing Back Against State Violence

Ehsanul “Shifa” Sadequee was born in Virginia and grew up in Atlanta, Georgia, the youngest of four siblings in a Bangladeshi-American family. According to his sisters, he was a curious and exceptionally kind child, who by his early teens had grown into a devout and diligent religious scholar.

In 2005, when he was just 18 years old, Shifa traveled to Bangladesh. In April 2006 he got married, but 12 days after his wedding, Bangladeshi authorities took and detained him, apparently at the behest of the U.S. government, for allegedly making false statements to the FBI at John F. Kennedy Airport on his way to Bangladesh the previous year.

Shifa’s sister Sonali, who is based in Atlanta, tells Rewire that this initial charge and arrest, which the High Court Division of the Supreme Court of Bangladesh later deemed a violation of international laws, was a terrifying process for the entire family. For days after Shifa was taken they had no news of his whereabouts. Fears that he would somehow wind up in Guantanamo, ensnared in the web of the “war on terror,” gnawed at the edges of their minds but the family pushed these aside, telling themselves that because Shifa had done nothing wrong, they had nothing to fear. With the phone ringing off the hook and the television on 24/7, they gleaned what scraps of information they could from CNN news reports.

It transpired that upon his arrest in Bangladesh, Shifa was stripped naked, wrapped in plastic, and flown via Alaska to New York, Sonali says, where he spent over three months at the Metropolitan Detention Center (MDC) in Brooklyn before being transferred to the federal penitentiary in Atlanta, Georgia. Shifa spent more than three years in pretrial solitary confinement before ever being formally charged with a crime, his sister said.

Once Shifa was inside the criminal justice system, Sonali explains, federal authorities quickly dropped the initial charges against him and began to build a case around allegations of material support.

At the heart of the case was Shifa’s renown as an Islamic scholar with a larger-than-life online persona—he had studied classical Arabic and the history of religion as a student in Canada and was a gifted translator, often sharing interpretations of Islamic or political texts on the internet. The Sadequee family says Shifa’s trial was riddled with shortcomings, including the use of previously classified evidence and the selection of jurors who admitted to having anti-Muslim bias—which Human Rights Watch says is a common problem. In addition, the prosecution used Shifa’s ideology as a brush with which to paint him as a fearsome radical, on the verge of carrying out a violent attack on U.S. soil.

Although Shifa, according to Sonali, never engaged in any actions beyond practicing free speech, he was found guilty on four terrorism counts in 2009 and, at the age of 23, sentenced to 17 years in federal prison. He represented himself at the trial, making him one of the first Muslim youth to do so in a national security case, according to his sisters.

Both Sonali and Sharmin Sadequee, who is based in New York, have been mobilizing on his behalf for over a decade. After years of shielding themselves from the backlash of isolation and Islamophobia that invariably accompanies charges of terrorism, the young women have turned their advocacy into an art form.

In an interview with Rewire, Sonali explains that when her brother was arrested, the women in her family developed an organic division of labor that allowed them to form a united front against the horror and uncertainty that had descended on their lives.

“I was already plugged into the social justice community in Atlanta, so I saw my role as tapping into that support network, bringing resources to my family to make sure we all understood the human rights issues involved, ensuring we had the skills to confront the media, which was bombarding us at the time,” she says. Her sister, meanwhile, dealt with the prisons, navigating bureaucratic visitation rules and ensuring Shifa had what he needed on the inside.

“Sharmin and my mother also reached out to the Muslim community, to mosques and other groups,” Sonali continues. “And the rest of the time, my mother was on the prayer rug. I don’t know how many hours she spent kneeling and praying.”

They built a website that is always fresh with the latest news about Shifa’s case and serves as a hub for their activism—they recently announced a letter-writing campaign to mark Ramadan, inviting more than 1,000 followers of a Justice for Shifa Facebook group to send greeting cards to Muslim prisoners. Countless hours are eaten up attending rallies, speaking on panels, or sitting with reporters, patiently unpacking the messy details of Shifa’s case.

The irony is that while the Sadequee sisters make a powerful team, they are constantly called upon to do what they say is the hardest thing of all: relive a time in their lives they would rather forget.

“I don’t like to do these interviews,” Sonali says bluntly. “I don’t enjoy them at all—but I recognize they have to be done. Only by sharing what happened to us, by talking about it, will others learn from it.”

They say they have been trying to create collective responses to state violence resulting from the “war on terror,” and hope to combat the government’s tactics of fear and isolation by building community power and resiliency. But this is easier said than done: Not only must the Sadequees contend with the lingering stigma of Shifa’s trial, but they also, until very recently, had to deal with the trauma of visiting their brother in a prison unit that has been described by former detainees as “Little Gitmo.”

CMUs: “A Religious and Political Quarantine”

Between 2009 and 2015, Shifa was imprisoned in the Communications Management Unit (CMU) at the federal detention center in Terre Haute, Indiana, a segregated portion of the prison comprised almost exclusively of Muslim men that has been the subject of a legal battle since 2010.

This past March, the Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR) urged the Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia to reinstate a lawsuit the group first filed six years ago challenging CMUs, which the Bureau of Prisons (BOP) quietly ushered into existence under the Bush administration—the first in 2006 in Indiana, and the second in 2008 in Marion, Illinois.

Conditions in these units, which house 60 to 70 prisoners combined, are harsh, according to the CCR: Although inmates are not held in isolation, they are banned from having any physical contact with family members during visits, and their calls are restricted to two per week, each for 15 minutes. By contrast, other BOP inmates are allowed 300 minutes worth of calls every month.

CCR claims the CMUs violate prisoners’ procedural due process rights, and argue that placement in these units is both arbitrary and retaliatory, with Muslim prisoners vastly overrepresented.

“Between 2006 and 2014, about 170 individuals filtered through these units and 101 of them—about 60 percent—were Muslims, even though Muslims only constitute 6 percent of the general federal prison population,” CCR Senior Staff Attorney Rachel Meeropol tells Rewire in a phone interview.

CCR reported in 2010 that in Marion, 72 percent of current CMU prisoners were Muslim, a 1,200 percent overrepresentation, while two-thirds of the CMU population in Terra Haute was Muslim, 1,000 percent higher than the national average of Muslim prisoners in federal facilities.

“We are challenging the lack of procedural protections before prisoners are placed in the CMU and also alleging that placement is in retaliation for protected political and religious speech,” Meeropol says, pointing out that inmates in the CMU are seldom given reasons for why they were moved into the units, and are routinely denied opportunities to earn their release into general population.

“CMUs are essentially a religious and political quarantine, the same kind of segregation that has supposedly been outlawed in this country,” she added.

In response to multiple requests for comment about these allegations, Justin Long with the Office of Public Affairs at the Information, Policy and Public Affairs Division for the BOP said in an email to Rewire, “The Bureau of Prisons cannot comment on matters currently in litigation,” and directed Rewire to the Bureau’s web page on CMUs.

In addition to being hard on inmates, Meeropol says CMUs are also “debilitating” for families, especially those with young children who cannot communicate with their fathers through letters, and often cannot understand why they are forced to speak to them through glass, using phones that are monitored by prison staff.

“Several mothers have told me that they’ve stopped bringing their children on visits because it was just too devastating,” Meeropol says.

The Collective Trauma of “Supermax” Prisons and Solitary Confinement

The alternative, some might say, is even worse. All over the country, Muslim prisoners are serving decades-long sentences in solitary confinement, which the United Nations has recognized as a form of torture. Advocates and relatives of terror suspects, or those incarcerated on terrorism charges, have long cried foul over these conditions of confinement, which they say is a form of collective punishment on entire families.

Zurata Duka, whose three sons, Dritan, Shain, and Eljvir were arrested in a manufactured terror plot by the government in 2007, is well aware of the toll of solitary confinement. Her sons have spent dozens of years between them in complete isolation, including long stints at the maximum-security facility in Florence, Colorado.

“My sons are strong—they never let us see them cry, even when their daughters are crying on the other side of the glass,” she says to Rewire. “But once my son Dritan told me he nearly lost his mind in isolation.”

Before his arrest, Zurata tells Rewire, Dritan had been very close with his youngest daughter. Every night he would put her to sleep, stroking her hair and singing lullabies. In those early days after he was taken away, the little girl would lie awake at night, calling out for her father. Unbeknownst to the family, thousands of miles away, Dritan was experiencing something similar.

“He told me, ‘Mom, I don’t know what happened. For three days I just lay there, stroking my pillow, thinking it was [his daughter]. I didn’t know who I was and I don’t know how I came back,’” Zurata recalls him saying.

His daughter was so desperate to see him that one day she penned a note to the president. It read: “Dear Mr. Obama. Today is my birthday. I am five years old. Please, if you can, bring my father back just for one day, so I can hug and kiss him, and then, if you want, you can take him back again.” Zurata says she mailed the letter to the White House. She never heard back.

Almost every family has a similar story. According to Mariam Abu-Ali, conditions of confinement often come up at annual gatherings of affected families, which she organizes in her role as director of the Prisoners and Families Committee at the National Coalition to Protect Civil Freedoms.

“About 90 percent of the attendees are women,” she says in a phone interview with Rewire, “and they bring a lot of pain and anxiety into the room. But I’d say the meetings are cathartic,” she adds. “It’s the place where we build bonds with the only people who know what we’re going through.”

Several women who’ve attended the conference in the past tell Rewire they are powerful spaces, offering families a rare chance to speak openly about their lives without fear of being misunderstood, judged, or pitied. It is also a moment for families, particularly women, to share in the collective nature of their trauma, especially the pain of incarceration.

In the 13 years that her brother has served, Mariam says she has come to the painful realization that prisons don’t just lock up individuals—they are a form of bondage on the entire family.

Because Ahmed Omar is imprisoned 1,600 miles from the family’s home in Virginia, in one of the BOP’s maximum-security facilities in Colorado, they only see him once or twice a year. Visits are limited to three family members at a time, meaning Mariam has not seen Ahmed in two years. He reserves his two monthly phone calls for his parents, so she can only hope to talk to him when she visits them. Even these calls are a source of enormous frustration. As she wrote in a recent op-ed:

My mom has spent every Tuesday and Thursday of the last decade, at home, sitting by the phone, patiently waiting for a call that sometimes did not come. And when the call does come, what can one even discuss in 15 minutes? Do you ask him how he’s doing? How can you even ask him how he’s feeling? Do you discuss his prison conditions? His legal case? How do you break the news to him when his aunt or grandfather has passed away?

“What you have to understand is that my brother’s case wasn’t just one devastating ‘moment’ in our lives—it’s a lifelong struggle,” Mariam tells Rewire. “This is not something you ever get used to, or accept. It’s about learning new ways of coping every single day, like living with a chronic illness.”

Each day brings fresh challenges, and tough decisions. For instance, Mariam used to maintain a website, manage a Facebook page, and post daily updates on a Twitter account all relating to her brother’s case. One day she felt she just couldn’t do it anymore.

“At a point you have to ask yourself—do I work full time and provide for my family or do I advocate full time on behalf of my loved one?” she asks. “This work, it’s emotionally draining, it’s a daily struggle and it doesn’t necessarily get easier with time.”

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this article misidentified the officials whom Shifa Sadequee had been accused of making false statements to. It was FBI officers, not immigration officials.

Analysis Politics

The DeVos Family: Promoting Conservative Religious Values Through Political Donations

Ally Boguhn

The DeVos family has thrown millions of dollars toward financing Senate races across the country involving vulnerable Republicans who support their issues; funding crisis pregnancy centers (CPCs) that lie to patients about pregnancy, abortion, and other health concerns; and lining up support for so-called religious liberties measures.

When you think about “money in politics,” the Kochs, the Mercers, the Coorses, or the Wilksesall of whom have made names for themselves funding conservative causes across the country—may come to mind.

You may be less likely to think about the DeVos family: religious conservatives in Michigan who for decades have helped funnel money into influential political battles, including local races, ballot measures, presidential elections, and key congressional contests in other states.

The DeVos family has thrown millions of dollars behind the causes and politicians they support. That means financing Senate races across the country involving vulnerable Republicans who support their issues; funding crisis pregnancy centers (CPCs) that lie to patients about abortion and other health concerns; fighting against marriage equality; and lining up support for so-called religious liberties measures.

In a January report highlighting donors “you’ve never heard of” who stand to make the biggest impact on this year’s upcoming election, the Hill’s Jonathan Swan and Harper Neidig featured the DeVoses’ almost unparalleled influence in conservative politics.

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“Over the course of 2015, no family in conservative politics donated more hard dollars to political campaigns than the DeVoses,” reported Swan and Neidig. Richard DeVos, the family’s billionaire patriarch, built his fortune as a co-founder of direct-selling franchise Amway; he is also the owner of the NBA’s Orlando Magic team. “An analysis by The Hill shows that members of the DeVos family donated $964,000 in hard dollars to Senate and House campaigns and to Republican Party committees at both the state and national level. This spending easily surpasses the $97,000 in hard dollars from the Koch family and $72,000 from the Coorses—two other major conservative donor families.”

The DeVoses’ commitment to the Republican Party runs deep. Among their numerous political ties, Richard DeVos acted as the finance chair of the Republican National Committee (RNC) in the 1980s; Betsy DeVos, who is married to Richard’s son Dick DeVos, was the chair of the Michigan Republican Party and finance chair of the National Republican Senatorial Committee; and her husband Dick took on a self-funded failed gubernatorial bid in Michigan in 2006 that cost the family more than $35 million.

In a phone interview with Rewire, Denise Roth Barber, managing director of the nonpartisan National Institute on Money in State Politics, explained that for families like the DeVoses, donations are often made to foster eventual relationships with politicians. “In general we all understand that contributions are made as an investment and that they’re hoping at the very least to have access to the candidates once they win so that they can discuss policies,” Roth Barber explained.

A search of the National Institute on Money in State Politics’ database, FollowTheMoney.org, reveals that the DeVos family has given $52.5 million to candidates and committees across the country since 2000, according to state data. However, Roth Barber noted that the family’s influence could extend beyond these reported direct donations. “There are so many other ways to influence and to … spend money politically besides direct donations to ballot measures, campaigns, and party committees …. So when we are looking at this we know that this is just one portion of their money. It’s not everything.”

In her book Dark Money: The Hidden History of the Billionaires Behind the Rise of the Radical Right, Jane Mayer explained that one of the ways the DeVoses have pushed their political influence beyond direct donations has been by putting hundreds of millions of dollars behind building a conservative movement.

“Starting in 1970, they began to direct at least $200 million into virtually every branch of the New Right’s infrastructure, from think tanks like the Heritage Foundation to academic organizations such as the Intercollegiate Studies Institute, which funded conservative publications on college campuses,” Mayer wrote.  

In a 1997 guest column for Capitol Hill publication Roll Call denouncing campaign finance regulations, Betsy DeVos admitted outright that she and her family used their money in order to buy influence.

“I know a little something about soft money, as my family is the largest single contributor of soft money to the national Republican Party,” wrote DeVos, according to Mayer. “I have decided, however, to stop taking offense at the suggestion that we are buying influence. Now I simply concede the point. They are right. We do expect some things in return. We expect to foster a conservative governing philosophy consisting of limited government and respect for traditional American values.”

Much of the DeVos family’s donations have gone toward helping to fund the politicians and the conservative organizations behind anti-choice and other conservative measures in their home state of Michigan. “With donations to state legislators and Gov. Rick Snyder, the DeVos family—via the Michigan Family Forum and Michigan Right to Life, which they help to fund—were able to pass Michigan’s ‘rape insurance’ law, requiring women to buy a separate insurance rider for abortion to be covered, even in cases of rape and incest,” explained NARAL Pro-Choice America in a 2015 memo, referring to the 2013 Abortion Insurance Opt-Out Act.

The family did indeed play a role in helping to elect Michigan Gov. Snyder, who has signed additional pieces of anti-abortion legislation, such as a 2012 anti-choice “super-bill” banning telemedicine abortion in the state and enacting what advocates called “coercion screenings” on those seeking the procedure. Snyder, more recently, has come under fire for mishandling the water crisis in Flint. Snyder was re-elected after “significant national involvement in the Michigan gubernatorial campaign” from the Republican Governors Association (RGA), according to the Michigan Campaign Finance Network, which also found that the DeVos family was among Michigan’s top donors to the RGA during the 2014 election cycle. The DeVoses gave another $122,430 directly to Rick Snyder for Governor.

Their donations have also helped other local anti-choice politicians get elected, including state Sen. Tom Casperson (R-Escanaba), who has sponsored measures such as “Choose Life” license plate legislation to help fund CPCs and who introduced a ban on a common abortion procedure this January, and state Sen. Darwin Booher (R-Evart), who has co-sponsored laws targeting Michigan abortion providers.

Although in recent years they seem to have largely flown under the radar outside of their home state, the DeVoses’ penchant for funding ultra-conservative causes and politicians hasn’t gone completely unnoticed. In 2012, members of the LGBTQ community called for a boycott of the family’s Amway company and its affiliates after news broke that the DeVoses had donated $500,000 to anti-marriage equality organization National Organization for Marriage (NOM).

An analysis released in February 2015 by Common Cause, a nonpartisan watchdog organization, named the DeVos family as one of the “major funders of the Religious Right,” finding that since 1998, the family gave more than $6.7 million to Focus on the Family (FoF)​—the same group that spent nearly $3 million in 2010 to fund an anti-abortion ad featuring football player and known conservative poster boy Tim Tebow during the Super Bowl​—through two of their family foundations. FoF spends millions each year to promote its anti-choice and anti-LGBTQ extremism, including promoting the passage of religious freedom restoration acts (RFRA).

NARAL similarly featured the DeVoses in its memo outlining the families that fund the “March for Life” and the larger anti-choice movement. NARAL’s research found that the DeVoses have spent millions of dollars funding right-wing organizations through direct donations as well as donations to “pass-through organizations” that help funnel money to conservative groups, think tanks, and other organizations, largely without the oversight of the Federal Election Commission (FEC)​. The DeVoses’ family charity gave $6.5 million total in 2009, 2010, and 2012 to DonorsTrust, one of these “pass-through” organizations that in turn has donated to FoF and other conservative groups such as Americans United for Life, which provides model anti-choice legislation for states looking to restrict access to reproductive health care.

In 2011, the DeVos family gave $3 million to the Americans for Prosperity Foundation, the nonprofit arm of the Koch-backed organization, through an unrestricted grant. As Adele Stan reported for Rewire, the Americans for Prosperity advocacy arm spent millions of dollars in the 2012 elections—and nearly all of that money was spent supporting anti-choice candidates.

Further analysis of the family’s giving shows that their opposition to abortion also prompted the DeVoses to give millions to conservative causes such as CPCs and other anti-choice organizations through their family foundations.

Between 1998 and 2013, two of the family’s charitable organizations—the Dick and Betsy DeVos Foundation and the DeVos Urban Leadership Initiative (formerly the Richard and Helen DeVos Foundation)—have given more than $1.1 million in unrestricted grants to a single CPC in Grand Rapids, Michigan, the Pregnancy Resource Center, which bills itself as a “life-affirming” clinic.

In these same years, the organizations donated heavily to the Right to Life Michigan Educational Fund, giving the group over $1.6 million in unrestricted grants. Another $15,000 was given to Baptists for Life.

The family is also a big supporter of the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank home to the Richard and Helen DeVos Center on Religion and Civil Society, established in 2004 after a $1.8 million grant from the DeVoses. The center was created “as a way to improve public discourse on these issues and to integrate serious reflection on the role of family, religion, and civil society across policy areas,” according to Heritage’s website. Its analysts have taken hardline stances advocating for Planned Parenthood to be defunded, opposing marriage equality, and arguing in favor of RFRA-related protections.

Perhaps just as significant have been the family’s donations during elections, particularly in recent years. During the 2012 election alone, 15 members of the family donated to primarily conservative political candidates, totaling over $1.4 million in funding. The family’s Amway company and its parent company, Alticor Inc., contributed another $1.07 million in that election cycle to candidates, PACs, committees, and outside spending groups.

The next year, after their home state of Michigan instated a new law doubling campaign contribution limits, nine members of the family gave a total of $700,000 to the state house and senate Republican caucuses in just two days. Between January 1, 2013 and December 31, 2014, the DeVos family gave $2.3 million to the Michigan Republican Party.

Analysis of the DeVoses’ spending in the 2016 campaign cycle conducted by Rewire using Center for Responsive Politics’ OpenSecrets.org database found that many members of the family have already donated the maximum amounts allowable by law under the FEC’s contribution limits, the majority going to vulnerable candidates across the country whose Senate seats are key to maintaining a Republican majority.

The FEC allows individual contribution limits of no more than $2,700 per person per election, and at least eight members of the DeVos family contributed the maximum allowable amount to Sen. Kelly Ayotte (R-NH), Sen. Rob Portman (R-OH), Sen. Richard Burr (R-SC), Sen. Pat Toomey (R-PA), and Sen. Mark Kirk (R-IL).

For many of these vulnerable incumbents, their anti-choice positions are a key point in their conservative platforms. In December 2015 the Associated Press predicted that abortion would play a major role in Senate races in many of the same states the DeVoses are funding conservative candidates, including New Hampshire, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, and Ohio.

This comes as no surprise, given that several of these same Republicans have a long history of pushing their extreme anti-choice views. Sen. Portman, who is running for re-election in Ohio, for example, touts on his campaign website his 100 percent rating from anti-choice group National Right to Life, his 77-0 voting record in favor of anti-choice measures, and his record co-sponsoring medically unsubstantiated fetal pain legislation in the Senate.

New Hampshire Sen. Kelly Ayotte, meanwhile, has championed so-called religious liberties at the expense of reproductive health care, seemingly a pet issue of the DeVoses given that Amway/Alticor has lobbied for related measures. Ayotte lauded the Supreme Court’s decision in Hobby Lobby allowing some employers to deny their staff insurance coverage for contraceptives with which they disagree on religious grounds, writing in a statement that “Americans shouldn’t be forced to comply with government mandates that violate core principles of their faith.” Ayotte also co-sponsored the Blunt Amendment, which would have limited the Affordable Care Act’s contraception mandate by allowing employers and insurers to deny contraceptive coverage and other care they disagreed with for “moral reasons.” 

At least nine members of the family have also given $10,000 (the largest an individual is allowed to donate to to a state or local party committee) directly to the Republican Party of Michigan this election cycle. The RNC is another major recipient of DeVos dollars, receiving over $1.1 million from the family in 2015 and maxing out contributions for many of the family members. The Republican Senatorial Committee received maximum donations of $33,400 from nine members of the family, totaling over $300,000.

Thus far, the family seems to be hedging its bets on which presidential candidate to back, and donations of various sizes have been made toward several Republicans who have already dropped out of the race, including Carly Fiorina, Marco Rubio, and Jeb Bush. John Kasich has also received a handful of direct donations.

With hundreds of thousands of dollars already directly invested in conservative politicians nationwide, the DeVoses’ financial contributions in 2016 mean the family could be buying up access to elected officials across the country. Given their stringent devotion to the causes pushed by the religious right, that influence could be a cause for concern.