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RESPONSE TO TERROR

Charity Sues Over Anti-Terror Law

Courts: Muslim group says freezing of its assets by federal government was unconstitutional.

January 29, 2002|JOSH MEYER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — An Illinois charity targeted by the Treasury Department as an alleged accomplice to terrorist groups sued the federal government Monday, saying use of a sweeping new anti-terrorism law to freeze the group's assets was unconstitutional and unfair.

Legal experts predicted that the lawsuit, filed by the Global Relief Foundation, will be a test case in determining how far the government can go in attempting to thwart the work of groups it believes are associated with terrorist activity.

The suit "will sort out what is the government's case [against Global Relief] and it will probably test the extent of the law," said Jack Blum, a Washington attorney specializing in financial criminal law.

A lawyer for Global Relief filed the civil lawsuit in the Northern District of Illinois, seeking an immediate overturning of the Dec. 14 order the Treasury Department issued freezing the group's funds, using the provisions of the Patriot Act.

That legislation, passed overwhelmingly by Congress after the Sept. 11 attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon, was meant to provide authorities with enhanced powers to combat terrorism, including staunching the flow of funds to alleged terrorist organizations.

But representatives of Global Relief said the legislation enabled the government to unfairly freeze about $900,000 of the Bridgeview, Ill.-based charity's funds and seize all its financial records without providing any evidence of wrongdoing. It also alleged that the government has "falsely smeared [the group] as having ties to terrorism but have failed to disclose any credible evidence or provide GRF with any notice of charges against it."

The financial freeze, lawyer Roger Simmons said, has virtually shut down the U.S.-based Muslim charity organization, cutting off paychecks to its employees and thwarting its relief efforts worldwide.

"The basic essence of what is happening here is they froze our assets without ever giving us our day in court," Simmons said. "If they can do it to us, they can do it to anyone. They could walk into IBM and freeze their assets simply because they want to investigate it."

Simmons and other Global Relief representatives said the group has no connections to terrorism, and that their offers to cooperate with federal authorities have been repeatedly rejected.

Global Relief describes itself as a humanitarian organization dedicated to helping victims of poverty and war, mostly in Muslim nations. It has offices throughout the world, including Afghanistan, but raises most of its money from donors in the United States.

Treasury officials had little comment, citing the lawsuit.

"This matter is now before the court," said Treasury spokeswoman Tasia Scolinos. "We are confident that the government's action will be judged appropriate in this case."

FBI and Treasury agents raided the group's offices early Dec. 14, at the same time they targeted another Chicago-area Islamic charity, Benevolence International Foundation.

Those efforts marked the first time the Bush administration's financial war on terrorism linked U.S.-based charities to alleged terrorists, including Osama bin Laden and his Al Qaeda network, authorities said at the time.

The crackdown came as NATO-led peacekeepers and United Nations police raided Global Relief's offices in Yugoslavia and detained several people on suspicion of being linked to international terrorism. Authorities received "credible intelligence information that individuals working for this organization may have been directly involved in supporting worldwide international terrorist activities," according to a North Atlantic Treaty Organization statement.

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