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Muslim Charity Head Remains in Detention - 2002-09-17

The head of a Chicago-based Islamic charity remains in United States government detention, as lawyers try to decide how to move ahead with charges he lied about links to a terrorist group.

Last Friday, federal Judge Joan Gottschall dismissed perjury charges against Enaam Arnaout, the head of the Benevolence International Foundation, a Muslim charity based in the Chicago suburbs. The U.S. government had charged Mr. Arnaout with perjury, saying he had lied in sworn affidavits, when he said he had no links to terrorism or terrorist groups. The government says Mr. Arnaout has ties to Osama bin Laden and his associates dating back more than a decade.

Mr. Arnaout has been jailed since April. Judge Gottschall dismissed the perjury charges, saying perjury law does not apply to the affidavits signed my Mr. Arnaout. Mr. Arnaout's colleague, Benevolence International board member Caise Hassan, says the judge's ruling shows the weakness of the government case. "The government clearly has no evidence of violence or terror. They have basically come up with a charge in order to keep him in prison right now."

Federal prosecutors are now charging Mr. Arnaout with obstructing justice and making false statements. In court Monday, federal lawyers argued Judge Gottschall no longer has jurisdiction over Mr. Arnaout's case because of Friday's ruling. They want the new charges heard by a different judge. Defense attorneys want Judge Gottschall to stay involved in the case. Attorneys have been given a week to file their arguments in the jurisdictional dispute.

Mr. Arnaout has been kept in solitary confinement in the federal jail in downtown Chicago. Colleague Caise Hassan calls Mr. Arnaout a political prisoner, and says he should be freed. "My personal position is, yes, he should be going free, obviously at least on bond," says Mr. Hassan. "If the government is filing new charges, and the person has been acquitted, or their charges declared irrelevant, they should be free to go."

U.S. government agents raided the offices of Benevolence International last December. It also froze the charity's bank accounts, accusing the foundation of supporting terrorist groups. Benevolence International says it only funds humanitarian efforts in the Muslim world, and denies any links to terrorism.