Redefining Terrorism

Redefining Terrorism—Long before right-wing opportunists began using the building of an Islamic center in Lower Manhattan to inflame public passions, federal law-enforcement was focused on a less conspicuous address. The “prayer house” on 1257 Siskiyou Blvd. in Ashland, Oregon, was owned by the Al-Haramain Islamic Foundation of Oregon, a Muslim charity that in 2001 was placed on the Treasury Department’s “specially designated global terrorist” list.

Federal agents were so concerned with Pirouz Sedaghaty — the Iranian-born U.S. citizen who oversaw the Ashland prayer house — that they subjected two of Al-Haramain’s Washington, D.C., attorneys to what we now know was illegal warrantless surveillance. In a lawsuit the Muslim charity filed against the George W. Bush administration, Judge Vaughn Walker ruled in March that Bush’s “Terrorist Surveillance Program” was unconstitutional. (See Washington Spectator 4/15/10.)

I was at the Portland, Oregon, airport when Sedaghaty returned to the U.S. to surrender to federal authorities in April 2007. Sedaghaty is charged with conspiring to defraud two federal agencies in the transfer of $150,000 out of the United States in 2000. He is also charged with filing a false tax return in an attempt to conceal that the $150,000 was sent from Oregon to Saudi Arabia. A third count alleges that he helped execute the money transfer. As we go to press, Sedaghaty is about to get his day in court.

There is no doubt that the money was headed for Chechnya, where the Russian Army was brutally suppressing a separatist movement. Solimon Al-Buthe, the Saudi national (and Al-Haramain board member) who carried the $150,000 from Oregon to Riyadh, wrote on one of the checks: “Donations for Chichania [sic] Refugees.”

Sedaghaty says the money was delivered to relief groups. Federal prosecutors allege it funded Chechen jihadists fighting the Russian army. They also say they don’t have to prove the money went to jihadists in order to convict Sedaghaty.

Sedaghaty is being prosecuted on post-9/11 grounds for an act committed before the terrorist attacks of 2001. In 2000 a Saudi national could walk into a Bank of America branch in Oregon and withdraw $130,000 in travelers checks without raising undue suspicion. (The remaining $20,000 was a cashier’s check.) And secular, Christian, and Muslim charities were funneling relief into Chechnya, where the scorched-earth policy of the Russian Army included rape as a tactic to subdue Muslim separatists.

Sedaghaty had left the U.S. while he was under investigation and returned two years after he was indicted. I asked Tom Nelson, an attorney who represented Al-Haramain, why Sedaghaty became a fugitive.

Nelson referred to the surveillance. The government broke the law, he said, then used illegally obtained information, in a process where neither his client nor his client’s attorneys were present, to designate Al-Haramain Oregon a terrorist organization. Then the government indicted Sedaghaty. Nelson said that Sedaghaty feared he would be put on trial as a terrorist.

That appears to be happening now. While Justice Department lawyers are prosecuting Sedaghaty for the failure to declare money taken out of the country and for filing a false tax return, much of their evidence focuses on jihad that occurred in Chechnya before jihad became a household term in the U.S.

The defense has responded in kind, with accounts of American public officials — including Senator John McCain and then-Senator Joe Biden — criticizing Russian atrocities in Chechnya. And with documentation of Russia’s human rights abuses there.

District Judge Michael Hogan ruled that the unconstitutional Terrorist Surveillance Program cannot be discussed in his Eugene, Oregon, courtroom. But when prosecutors filed a pre-trial motion objecting to defense attorneys’ plans to use documental evidence and witnesses related to Chechnya, the judge had had enough.

“The court is concerned as to why the government feels obliged to delve so far into the Chechnyan issue … but it has opened the door,” Hogan wrote.

So Pirouz Sedaghaty is being tried on surrogate terrorism charges. And the judicial system’s ability to render justice 10 years after the attacks of 9/11 is being tested in a two-week trial in Oregon.

Wait until Gingrich and Palin get wind of this story.