Arab and Muslim Civil Rights Issues in the Chicago Metropolitan Area Post-September 11

Chapter 5

Government Actions Toward Chicago-area Islamic Charities

Charitable giving is one of the Five Pillars of Islam. It is one of the things that the Quran demands all Muslims to do. Therefore, when the government froze the assets of the Global Relief Foundation, Benevolence International Foundation, and the Holy Land Foundation, many Muslims were left confused and afraid. Many Muslims had fulfilled their charitable giving requirement by giving to these organizations. If these groups were aiding terrorism, would they, the individual donators, be held responsible? And if these groups were aiding terrorists, why were no charges immediately brought against them? What would happen to the many American citizens who worked for these charities? All of these questions and many more faced the Chicago-area Muslim community.

Many of the facts concerning these charities are not accessible because, under the USA Patriot Act, government can seize and/or freeze assets of an organization or individual without a hearing on the assertion that there is probable cause to believe that the assets are involved in domestic terrorism. Also, some of the evidence is being concealed out of concern for national security. Therefore, this chapter merely reflects opinions and feelings of community members regarding the situation as well as the response to these feelings by government officials who are limited in their discussion due to the sensitivity and nature of the issue.

Community Representatives

Anthony Simpkins, President Muslim Bar Association

There were three Islamic charities in the Chicago area that were closed down “pending investigation” under the executive order that was issued after September 11.[1] They were Global Relief, Benevolence International Foundation, and the Holy Land Foundation. During the process of the shutting down of these organizations, one of the organizations, Global Relief Foundation, demanded of the government to see the evidence upon which they based the freezing of this charity’s assets and the seizure of their property and records. After initially refusing to do so, the government released some information to them. What they gave them were newspaper articles by journalists who suggested that there was some connection between this particular charity and terrorism. Can you imagine Catholic Charities or a member of the archdiocese being arrested, their assets frozen, their property seized because a journalist suggested that there may be some ties between that individual or that organization and some criminal conspiracy? Of course not.

The government also shut down Benevolence International Foundation.[2] No charges have ever been brought. No trial has ever been set. In fact, under the presidential order there’s not even clearly a right to a trial to challenge the seizure of their assets and the seizure of their property and the freezing of their assets. There have been no charges brought. This was all done pending investigation. So, Benevolence International then sued the government, suggesting that the actions that were taken against this organization were illegal under the Constitution.

Now, keep in mind that Benevolence International read in the newspaper that they might be the subject of a government probe. What they did was they hired a law firm who then contacted the FBI and U.S. attorney’s office and said, “We heard we’re under investigation. We are inviting you to come and take a look at our records, interview our employees and our directors, and we want to cooperate with you because we’re confident we haven’t done anything.” That offer was turned down, and instead, under sealed warrant, their offices were raided, including some of the homes of some of their directors. They’ve never been able to see any evidence against them. This is un-American and this has not happened to any other group or group of individuals in this country.

Benevolence International sued the government, and as part of that lawsuit the executive director said that they had not engaged in any terrorist-related activities.[3] The government then turned around and charged the individual that made that statement in the proceedings with perjury.[4] Now, the government then sought to have this individual, Enaam Arnaout, held on a personal charge without bail and in solitary confinement. This, of course, is unprecedented on a charge of perjury. The government stood before the magistrate judge in late May, right before Memorial Day, and suggested that this individual should be held without bail on a perjury charge because he was going to face other charges under several federal terrorism statutes. The judge then held him without bail, saying he was a flight risk because he faced all of these terrorism charges which held a penalty of anywhere from 15 years to life in prison.[5] However, when the indictment came down the day after the judge entered the order holding this individual without bail, it included nothing but the charge of perjury.[6]

What we have here is a situation where individuals are being incarcerated. The most basic and fundamental human right that we have in this country is the right of liberty, of freedom from incarceration. The rights that our papers and our persons are free from unreasonable government intrusion, unless there’s some charges brought against us and some evidence brought against you that we can confront and challenge. These people in these institutions are being held without those most basic rights to due process.

If these institutions and these individuals are guilty of something, then our American system of justice says they should be charged, evidence should be presented, witnesses should be presented, and there should be an open and public trial in which these issues are ferreted out. That’s not what’s happening here. No other people are subject to this.

For example, the Jewish Defense League’s directors, Irv Rubin and Earl Krugel, have been indicted for a plot to bomb a mosque in Culver City, California, and also the legislative offices of an Arab American California state representative.[7] These are the directors of the Jewish Defense League. The Jewish Defense League’s assets have not been frozen pending investigation. Their property has not been seized under sealed warrant.

When Timothy McVeigh bombed the Oklahoma Federal Building, there was no move to institute mass detentions of members of his organization or similar [anti-government] organizations. There was no policy instituted to do mass interviews of people related to him to ferret out any possible future terrorist plots.

The point is that from our standpoint this is a witch hunt. If someone has broken a law, if someone has done something illegal, if someone is involved in something that is a form of wrongdoing, we should bring a charge against that person and we should have a trial. In none of these instances has that occurred. And this is because the objects of these are Muslims.

Dean Mohiuddin, Board Member Islamic Foundation

Now the concern is that Muslims are required to spend a certain portion of their income for those who are less fortunate than they are. Usually coming from the Far East and Middle East, we know what poverty there is, and poverty there means from where is my next meal going to come. That is the poverty, not the poverty that I don’t have a color TV. So, we try to find the organizations that used to help those organizations in their educational programs, helping the mothers, the widows, the orphans.

Now there is concern among the people. Will I be able to use any of the charities? What if I give to charity and later on I find out that that charity has been indicted by the Justice Department? These are the concerns that we have not been able to answer fully or to the extent that we would be satisfied with the legal answer. So, we’re hoping that in the days and weeks and months to come that through the aid and through the help and cooperation of the Justice Department that we will be able to provide some direction to that aspect of the religious observance.

Generally speaking, from what we have read and what we have heard, it appears that the only allegation against these organizations is guilt by association. The Council of Islamic Organizations of Greater Chicago has approached the Justice Department to find out if we can at least help the employees of the charities who have lost their jobs, who don’t have any other source of income. The answer was, yes, you can. So, we are trying to help at least those people.

We are also trying to find out if we can have a defense fund for the charity. And I think the preliminary answer is yes, as long as it is not tax exempt. The other point is that all organizations, not only my organization, but all organizations are concerned about guilt by association. How far we can go? And it is not easy in these times to get any clear direction.

William Haddad, Executive Director Arab American Bar Association

We see the freezing of assets, and this may be well founded. Some of these organizations may deserve to have their assets frozen. I don’t know. It’s an investigation, and our government has the duty to do so. But it’s an open and notorious kind of thing, and it creates a fear among religious people in our community that their mosque, their church, their organization may also be targeted, perhaps unfairly. What are the rules of engagement here?

Rouhy Shalabi, President Arab American Bar Association

One of the concerns with the secret evidence or the freezing of assets regarding charities is to find out if there is anything behind it. The people who donate monies for humanitarian causes want to know what was being done in their name and so forth. So, our community is waiting, and we would like to see the evidence come out. I think if the government has it, lay it on the table so we can all stand up and know what it is and deal with it.

Kareem Irfan, President Council of Islamic Organizations of Greater Chicago

One classic example in that area that I have talked about is the targeting of Muslim charities. In Islam, the giving of charity is a fundamental obligation, as it is with many other faiths. A Muslim cannot practice his or her faith to the fullest extent without actual charitable giving in a formal fashion. And the charities that have become recognized, they have come to achieve that status because people have gained trust that these are serving humanitarian concerns and projects all over the world.

Now, if the government is concerned about something incorrect going on, then what we hope would have happened and we hope will happen in the future is that appropriate consideration be given to how they’re targeting the investigation that takes place. The Muslim charities, for instances, two of the local-area charities which are very well respected, they were targeted for investigation presumably for a number of months, but action that was taken was done in the month of Ramadan. This is the month of fasting where Muslims consider the days to be sacrosanct, and the good deeds are presumed to be blessed with a lot more reward.

So, given the fundamental obligation for charity, 99 percent of Muslims save their charity to be given in this particular month and give throughout the month. Now, what happened is, I’m sure there must have been some justification for it that we have never been informed about, but the charities were targeted during this month. The month of Ramadan came, 28 days of that month went by and 99 percent of charity was given with this expectation that the gift will be received with an increase reward. Two days prior to the end of the month of Ramadan, the assets of these charities were frozen. Some hundreds of thousands of dollars that were given with the intention of people discharging their religious obligation were seized. If that could have been done a month in advance, that would have saved a lot of difficulty on behalf of Muslim Americans.

So, people start wondering if the government had this information at hand, why did they wait until a majority of the people had actually given their dollars for these charitable causes for humanitarian purposes and suddenly have the assets frozen at that point in time? Did they wait to see who was giving?

Mohammad Kaiseruddin, President Muslim Community Center

We know that the in cases against Benevolent International, the Holy Land Foundation, and the Global Relief, charges against them have not been disclosed, even to their attorneys, let alone us.[8] The only charge we know is in the suit against Mr. Arnaout for perjury, and that’s all we know about that.

These charities have been around for a long time, several years, probably more than 10 years, and Muslims all over the United States have trusted these charities, have given money to these charities, have gotten reports from these charities as to how they’re spending the money, which people where in the world they are helping and what type of charity they are or what type of help they are providing. So, it takes time to build up organizations like that and have trust of the community, and these three organizations did it. Now it’s been taken away. So Muslims are now wondering how do we give our charity? Who do we give our charity to? How do we help the people of our faith who are desperately in need; whether they are in Palestine, they are in Kashmir, they are in Chechnya, they’re in Somalia, wherever they are?

There are Muslims all around the world that are in desperate need. And we are not able to provide that help. There are still a couple of, two or three, national charity organizations still in business, but again because of this shutting down of these three charities, there has been a chilling effect on the community itself that they say, “Well, either our money is going to be locked up again if we give to these organizations or worse yet through these organizations the government might try to bring charges against us that we are giving money to these.”

So, in general, there has been a very chilling effect on giving by the Muslims and that’s not very easy, particularly the portion of charity that we practice which is an obligatory portion of charity. It’s got to be given. So, once you give it, that money doesn’t belong to you anymore and our people are left up to their own means to find how to give that charity. It’s a difficult situation.

Well, there is concern. Obviously, there has to be a concern. But without finding out a charge let alone proof, let alone anything as to what was the basis, we are skeptical. If anything, this perjury charge brought against Mr. Arnaout for an association 10 years ago leads us to believe that we don’t think the government has anything. So do we have any more trust that the government has any better proof against these charities? If there is, we certainly would like to know. And we would certainly like to stop any terrorist type activities being done that we come across because obviously we will not do it. But in the absence of any of that, we feel that our civil rights have been violated. We are not able to practice our religion as we want to practice our religion.

Gregory Mitchell, Board Member Muslim Civil Rights Center

When the government seized the assets of Benevolence International Foundation and Holy Land Foundation, it was at the end of Ramadan. And what is significant about that is Ramadan is a month of fasting for Muslims and at that time, that’s when Muslims are encouraged to increase whatever charitable donations they are going to make. And it is at that time many Muslims will donate, and toward the end of that month they will make that donation. And the seizure of assets took place right at the end of the month.

So now from my perspective, if the government was concerned about this being a funneling device for funding of terrorist organizations, they should have done it earlier. And to the extent you say, no, we have to make sure we have a case, then now that you’ve seized the money, you know that this money comes locally, why isn’t that money turned back to the Muslim community? We have an umbrella organization here in the Chicagoland area called the Council of Islamic Organizations, and Mr. Kaiseruddin was the founding president of that particular organization. It is capable of receiving those funds, even with the oversight of the federal government. But there’s not a reason to take Muslims’ funds that they gave with the intent that it help the needy to stay in the federal government’s coffers or to be isolated for merely the fact that we believe that it will be used for terrorism that we will prove some day.

Jim Fennerty, President Chicago Chapter of the National Lawyers Guild

I represent one of the other charities, which is the United Holy Land Foundation. I represent the employees, not the foundation itself. Well, you think, why would the employees have a lawsuit? Well, what happened to the employees was that once they froze the assets of the Holy Land Foundation, the government went into people’s private bank accounts and took out their last paycheck. They just got their year-end bonus. The government took their bonus out of their personal savings accounts. They confiscated their personal property that they had in there. One guy on the south side had a little band. He had some speakers and some other equipment, they confiscated all of that.

They also lost their Cobra benefits, and they cannot get insurance now. Some of those people have serious illnesses, and they cannot get Cobra insurance. Because under Cobra, your employer you left had to be in business. Well, the Holy Land Foundation has taken the position they’re out of business, so you can’t get Cobra benefits.

Government Officials

Patrick Fitzgerald, U.S. Attorney Northern District of Illinois

There was a civil action brought having to do with one charity, two civil actions regarding two charities. In those civil actions, our papers were filed publicly. There was a particular amount of material that was filed under seal and that we could not discuss because of national security. But that had to do with the reason why the government chose to conduct searches. And in choosing to conduct searches, the government wants to establish its good faith that what it did was reasonable, and the extent that there was national security information driving decisions made by the government, we thought it was appropriate for the judge to know why we did it, not for an illicit purpose. Obviously, if we reveal that in public, we compromise sources and efforts. So, in that limited instance, we did not comment on those materials publicly. But beyond that, we have made an extensive public record in the civil proceeding which, I think if you stack it up, it would be about 5 feet high, that people can look at.

So, in terms of the conduct of the U.S. attorney’s office post-9/11, the rules are the same as they were before. We have applied those rules consistently before 9/11 and after 9/11. And we’re trying to get the message out to the community that much of what we’re doing, if we cannot talk about it, that’s because of the fair trial rights and grand jury rules, not something different.

Saffiya Shilo, Executive Director of Ethnic Affairs Lt. Gov. Corrine Wood’s Office

Because of the recent investigations of local charities, the Arab community was very concerned about being victims as well for contributing to some of these charities that later turned out being accused of having connections to terrorism. So, I initiated a phone call to the U.S. attorney’s office, who said, “Well, we’ll call some people.” They had the names of people to call, and I told them that they needed to come out to that particular community, talk to that community and listen to their concerns. So, we set up another meeting in Burbank, which the U.S. attorney Patrick Fitzgerald and also the FBI agent Kneir attended. The community had some really legitimate concerns and questions and follow-up was asked for. For example, they asked to find out which, if any, places they could donate to. The officials said that they couldn’t say where they could donate. They could only give a list of the charities that were accused. We haven’t gotten that list.

[1] Exec. Order 13224, 66 Fed. Reg. 49079 (2001), amended by Exec. Order 13268, 67 Fed. Reg. 44751 (2002), and Exec. Order 13284, 68 Fed. Reg. 4075 (2003).

[2] Benevolence International Foundation (BIF) is an Illinois not-for-profit charitable foundation incorporated since 1992. On December 14, 2002, pursuant to the emergency search provisions of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, 50 U.S.C. § 1801 et seq., the FBI seized financial and business records from BIF’s Palos Hills, Illinois, office. On the same date, acting pursuant to the International Emergency Economic Powers Act, 50 U.S.C. § 1701 et seq., the Treasury Department issued an order blocking BIF’s assets and records pending further investigation. See United States v. Benevolence Int’l Found., Inc., No. 02 CR 414, 2002 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 17223 (D. Ill. Sept. 13, 2002).

[3] Benevolence Int’l Found., Inc. v. Ashcroft, 200 F. Supp. 2d 935 (D. Ill. 2002) (civil suit brought by foundation suspected of supporting terrorist activities, special circumstances, including similarity of parties, issues, facts, and importance of pending criminal case, stayed until conclusion of criminal case).

[4] On April 29, 2002, the United States attorney for the Northern District of Illinois filed criminal charges against Benevolence International Foundation (BIF) and Enaam M. Arnaout, its chief executive officer, for having “knowingly submitted false material declarations under oath.” The criminal charges are based on Arnaout’s sworn affidavit supporting BIF’s motion for preliminary injunction in which Arnaout states that “BIF has never provided aid or support to people or organizations known to be engaged in violence, terrorist activities, or military operations of any nature obstruct justice.” Benevolence Int’l Found., Inc. v. Ashcroft, 200 F. Supp. 935 (Dist. Ill. 2002).

[5] A magistrate ordered defendant detained pending trial. Defendant moved for modification of conditions of the pretrial confinement. Specifically, he challenged his placement in administrative detention and transport under a three-man hold. The district court held that there was no evidence that the placement interfered with defendant’s right to counsel since the detention order specifically directed he be afforded reasonable opportunity for private consultation with counsel. Defendant could only challenge conditions of confinement through a separate civil action. United States v. Enaam M. Arnaout, No. 02 CR 892, 2002 U.S. Dis. LEXIS 23400 (D. Ill. Dec. 6, 2002).

[6] On October 9, 2002, federal authorities indicted Enaam Arnaout “with two counts of mail fraud and one count each of racketeering conspiracy, conspiracy to provide material support to terrorists, conspiracy to launder money, money laundering and wire fraud.” Benevolence International was not named in the indictment. (Matt O’Connor and Laurie Cohen, “U.S. Ties Charity Leader to Terror,” Chicago Tribune, Oct. 10, 2002.) On February 10, 2002, “Arnaout pleaded guilty to a single count of racketeering conspiracy” and the other six counts were dropped. According to prosecutors, Arnaout pleaded guilty to not revealing that he “was sending money to buy boots and uniforms for fighters in Chechnya.” Arnaout also agreed “to cooperate with the government in other investigations.” (Stephen Franklin and Laurie Cohen, “Plea Deal Averts Terror Trial,” Chicago Tribune, Feb. 11, 2003.)

United States v. Enaam M. Arnaout, No. 02 CR 892, 2002 U.S. Dis. LEXIS 23400 (D. Ill. Dec. 6, 2002) (defendant and co-conspirators did not establish that groups they allegedly provided aid to were lawful combatants privileged under Geneva Convention against prosecution for conspiracy to murder, kidnap, maim, and injure others); United States v. Enaam M. Arnaout, No. 02 CR 892, 2003 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 1635 (D. Ill. Feb. 4, 2003) (proffered materials were not admissible to support a second superseding indictment alleging three distinct conspiracies).

[7] “JDL Pleads Guilty to Bomb Plot Against US Congressman,” Arab American News, vol. 19, no. 887 (Feb.14, 2003), p. 17.

[8] Global Relief Found., Inc. v. O’Neill, No. 02-2536, 2003 U.S. App. LEXIS 6708 (Apr. 4, 2003); Holy Land Found. for Relief and Dev. v. Ashcroft, 219 F. Supp. 2d 57 (D. DC 2002); Benevolence Int’l Found., 200 F. Supp. 2d 935 (D. Ill. 2002).