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Rosenbergs’ son warns free speech threatened

"When we joined the great demonstration in New York City against the invasion of Iraq in February 2003, we were corralled and told that demonstrating could take place only in what they called Free Speech Zones," said Meeropol, who spoke to hundreds gathered at the Central Queens YMHA in Forest Hills Tuesday. "In school, I was taught that all of the United States was a free speech zone.""Free speech was under attack more than 50 years, too," he said. "It could then, as now, be seen by some as unpatriotic. The war that raged then was in Korea and was against Communism."Meeropol and his brother were children when his parents were executed in the electric chair at Sing Sing prison on the night of June 19, 1953. They had been convicted of conspiracy to steal atomic bomb secrets and pass them to the Soviet Union.Ethel Rosenberg's brother, David Greenglass, escaped the electric chair by testifying against the Rosenbergs.U.S. District Judge Irving Kaufman in Manhattan lectured the Rosenbergs before sentencing them to death, suggesting that the acts for which they were convicted strengthened worldwide communism and brought on the Korean War, in which more than 33,000 Americans were killed.Meeropol, now 57 and a Boston lawyer, expressed particular alarm at the U.S.A. Patriot Act, which he said gives the federal government unprecedented powers to investigate the lives of ordinary citizens in the name of preventing terrorism."In my parents' case, tried during the Korean War, prosecutors linked the thing the public feared most - the atomic bomb - with the people the public feared most - Communists - to justify the death penalty," Meeropol said. "Now we are at war again and the government is linking the thing the public fears most - terrorism - with the people the public fears most - Islamic fundamentalists - to obtain a similar outcome for those caught up in the anti-terrorist dragnet.""In the McCarthy era, FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover proclaimed that 'Communists must not be allowed to hide behind the Constitution,' Meeropol said. "Our former attorney general, John Ashcroft, said the same thing about suspected terrorists."He pointed out that Ashcroft's replacement, Alberto Gonzalez, referred to the Geneva Convention, which forbids torture of prisoners as "quaint.""We must remember that there is nothing more patriotic than fighting for our constitutional rights," Meeropol said.In answer to a question from the audience, Meeropol said he did not believe his father conspired to steal atom bomb secrets but that there was an outside possibility that he did something to help the Soviets "defeat Adolf Hitler" in World War II."If that is true, I do not fault him," Meeropol said."From shortly after their arrests and until the hour of my parents' death, they were offered a similar deal" to the one which Greenglass accepted, Meeropol wrote in his book called "An Execution in the Family - One Son's Journey" published by St. Martin's Press for $25.95."They were pressured to confess that they had helped to engineer the Soviet Union's theft of vital atomic secrets and to name all others they had worked with to accomplish this feat," Meeropol wrote. "From the beginning, my brother and I were used as pawns to extort my parents' cooperation. But, unlike the Greenglasses, they refused. There is little doubt the reason they were killed was because they resisted."With his parents executed, Meeropol and his older brother, Michael, were adopted and raised by Abel and Anne Meeropol.Reach contributing writer Phillip Newman by e-mail at or by phone at 718-229-0300, Ext. 136.

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