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Man Admits Sending Aid to Fighters

Charity leader illegally supported Muslims in Chechnya and Bosnia, but he denies a link to Al Qaeda. U.S. defends plea agreement.

February 11, 2003|Richard B. Schmitt | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — The leader of an Islamic charity who was indicted last year for allegedly funneling money to Al Qaeda accepted a plea bargain with prosecutors in Chicago on Monday, admitting he had illegally bankrolled Muslim fighters in Chechnya and Bosnia-Herzegovina.

The case of Syrian-born Enaam Arnaout, a naturalized U.S. citizen, was a high-profile example of how the Bush administration was attempting to use the courts to strike at the financial roots of terrorism.

In October, he was accused in a seven-count federal indictment of passing millions of dollars to Osama bin Laden through the Benevolence International Foundation, a nonprofit group devoted to "humanitarian" purposes that Arnaout, 41, founded in 1992.

On the day jury selection was to begin, Arnaout agreed to plead guilty to a single count of racketeering conspiracy.

He acknowledged he had fraudulently diverted donations for Muslim widows, orphans and the poor to instead provide boots, tents, uniforms and an ambulance to units of the Bosnian army, as well as hunting boots to civilians and fighters in Chechnya after the 1994 Russian invasion.

He also agreed to cooperate with investigators, and prosecutors said they would consider the level of his cooperation in recommending a sentence.

Under the federal racketeering law, Arnaout could be given a maximum sentence of 20 years in prison and fined $250,000. No sentencing date has been scheduled.

The plea agreement includes no admissions about links between the charity and Al Qaeda.

Last week, in a blow to the government, U.S. District Judge Suzanne Conlon put off the admission of several documents into evidence, including e-mails, memos and photographs.

The documents, prosecutors contended, linked Arnaout and his group to an illicit "15-year international conspiracy" of diverting philanthropic funds to support violence overseas.

The rejected materials included the statement of one alleged Al Qaeda member who said he had been told by Bin Laden in 1993 that Arnaout's organization was one of seven charities bankrolling the terror network's operations.

Conlon held that the government filing was "devoid of analysis" that showed "a specific conspiracy"; she also found it relied heavily on documents with dates and authors that could not easily be verified.

She indicated that she might reconsider the ruling as the trial progressed and materials were individually offered into evidence.

In a statement released Monday by his lawyer, Joseph Duffy of Chicago, Arnaout asserted that the plea agreement was vindication of the main charges against him.

"The plea agreement entered into today is an acknowledgment by the government that neither Mr. Arnaout nor BIF ever provided any support to Al Qaeda, Osama bin Laden, or any other terrorist organization," the statement read.

It added that Arnaout also questioned whether, in a case involving an Arab American and terrorism, he could have received a fair trial.

Prosecutors said the plea agreement was a milestone. Patrick Fitzgerald, the U.S. attorney in Chicago, said, "We are gratified that today's plea vindicates the government's claim that Arnaout and BIF were victimizing well-intentioned donors."

He added: "We are confident that if the defendant follows through on his commitment to cooperate truthfully ... today's guilty plea will be a beginning, not an end, of a sustained effort to make sure that violence overseas is not funded from Chicago."

A spokesman for Fitzgerald said the judge's pretrial ruling last week had little effect on the decision to resolve the case, and denied the government was backing down from the allegations involving Al Qaeda.

At a news conference in Washington, Atty. Gen. John Ashcroft said, "The government stands strongly behind those allegations" that link the fund-raiser to Bin Laden.

"They will be pertinent" when Arnaout is sentenced, Ashcroft said. "We believe this is a strong outcome."

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