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U.S. Accuses Hamas Figure of Racketeering

Two others are also charged with using bank accounts here to finance the Palestinian group.

August 21, 2004|Richard B. Schmitt | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — A senior Hamas leader and two other activists were indicted on charges that they ran a racketeering enterprise over 15 years that used U.S. bank accounts to finance the militant Palestinian group, the Justice Department announced Friday.

The grand jury indictment, unsealed in Chicago, outlined an alleged conspiracy in which millions of dollars were said to be laundered in support of the group.

The case is the second involving a Hamas-related defendant brought by federal authorities in the last month. It illustrates the Justice Department's willingness to use aggressive legal strategies to interrupt the flow of funds to suspected terrorist groups.

Justice officials said the latest indictment was the first to identify Hamas as a "criminal enterprise" under federal racketeering law. Hamas was designated a foreign terrorist organization by the State Department in 1997 for carrying out suicide bombings and other acts of violence in Israel, the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.

The defendants weren't charged with directly participating in any terrorist attacks. Rather, the indictment charged that they furnished money and personnel to Hamas at a time when it was engaged in violence, including "multiple acts" of murder, kidnapping and maiming.

Indeed, many of the activities complained of in the indictment occurred before Hamas was declared a terrorist group. The government's use of the racketeering law allows it to describe those earlier acts as part of an ongoing criminal conspiracy.

The racketeering conspiracy charge carries a maximum penalty of life in prison. The indictment also seeks the forfeiture of approximately $2.7 million held by the defendants in four bank accounts.

"Today, terrorists have lost yet another source of financing and support for their bombs and bloodshed," U.S. Atty. Gen. John Ashcroft said at a news conference.

The defendants include Mousa Mohammed Abu Marzook, a prominent Hamas political figure and U.S.-educated engineer who was expelled by U.S. authorities in the mid-1990s for suspected terrorist activities. He now lives in Syria and is considered a fugitive, Ashcroft said.

Abu Marzook, speaking from Damascus, Syria, to the Arab satellite channel Al Jazeera, denounced the accusations as politically motivated.

"This is an issue of [the] election campaign. They want to say to the American masses, 'We are fighting terrorism,' " he said. "They think Hamas is a terrorist organization, and every week they issue something condemning Hamas and accusing them of laundering money."

Also indicted were Muhammad Hamid Khalil Salah, a naturalized U.S. citizen living in suburban Chicago who once served time in an Israeli jail, and Abdelhaleem Hasan Abdelraziq Ashqar of Alexandria, Va., who entered the U.S. as a graduate student at the University of Mississippi in the 1980s and later taught at Howard University in Washington.

Ashqar was previously indicted on charges of criminal contempt for refusing to testify before a Chicago grand jury investigating fundraising activities on behalf of Hamas. He had been under house arrest since November.

"I think it is a blatant attempt by the Bush-Ashcroft Justice Department to curry favor with the Jewish vote," said Thomas A. Durkin, a Chicago lawyer representing Ashqar.

"I am astounded at the scope and breadth of the indictment, and I am disappointed that they would attempt to criminalize conduct in an international political dispute."

Ashqar and Salah were arrested Thursday night and made preliminary appearances in federal courts in Alexandria and Chicago, respectively, on Friday, Justice Department officials said. Ashqar was ordered held for transfer to Chicago.

The indictment contends that since 1988 the men conspired with 20 others, including other high-ranking Hamas leaders, some now deceased, to illegally finance terrorist activities, including providing money for recruitment and the purchase of weapons.

According to the indictment, Salah directed and financed the travel of a Chicago-based associate to scout potential terrorist targets in Israel, and Ashqar allegedly opened various bank accounts in Mississippi that were used as a clearinghouse for Hamas funds.

Abu Marzook coordinated and financed activities of Hamas while living in the United States from 1988 until 1993, the indictment charges, maintaining and sharing a network of bank accounts and receiving substantial deposits from various sources overseas, including Saudi Arabia and Switzerland.

According to the indictment, amounts ranging from tens to hundreds of thousands of dollars at a time were transferred into the United States, with money eventually disbursed to accounts and individuals abroad for use to further Hamas activities.

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