Muslim charity leader linked to bin Laden gets 11 years

CHICAGO (AP) A Chicago-area Muslim charity leader linked by prosecutors to Osama bin Laden’s terrorist network was sentenced Monday to more than 11 years in federal prison for defrauding dozens of donors.

Enaam Arnaout, 41, a Syrian-born U.S. citizen, looked gaunt with dark circles under his eyes after 15 months in federal custody but was calm as U.S. District Judge Suzanne B. Conlon imposed the sentence.

The government’s investigation of Arnaout and his Benevolence International Foundation, which was based in suburban Palos Hills, has been a high-profile component of the government’s war on terrorism.

Attorney General John Ashcroft traveled to Chicago in October to announce that Arnaout had been indicted on federal racketeering charges.

Arnaout pleaded guilty in February to racketeering, admitting he diverted thousands of foundation dollars to pay for boots, tents, uniforms and other supplies to military groups in war-torn Bosnia and Chechnya.

Conlon sentenced him to 11 years and four months. She could have imposed a maximum of 12 years and seven months under federal guidelines. He must serve nearly 10 years before he is eligible for parole and gets credit for time he already has served.

Before sentencing, Arnaout addressed the court in a husky voice and said he had been “kidnaped” by the government and that an FBI agent who investigated his case told him: “I’m going to get you one way or another.”

“I came to this country to enjoy freedom and justice,” Arnaout said. Instead, he said he had been harassed and thrown in jail.

“I know they have destroyed my life already,” he told Conlon. He claimed to have answered every question put by prosecutors during 27 interrogation sessions in hopes of getting a lighter sentence.

U.S. Attorney Patrick J. Fitzgerald said Arnaout pretended to cooperate but held back information.

“Mr. Arnaout can run around and blame everyone else but he ought to look in the mirror,” Fitzgerald said. “I’m here because I lied, I deceived people, I was involved with people I shouldn’t have been involved with. I supported fighters when I told people I didn’t.”

Fitzgerald said the sentence was “a good result, but the great result would have been for him to come in and cooperate and tell the truth and make other cases.”

Arnaout’s foundation funneled an estimated $20 million to Muslim countries over eight years in the 1990s to help widows, orphans and refugees.

The amount that went to fighting groups has been estimated between $200,000 and $400,000. Conlon ordered $315,624 in restitution to be sent to the United Nation’s high commissioner for refugees.

Conlon declined to boost Arnaout’s sentence for what federal prosecutors say are clear ties to al-Qaida.

She said it was grounds for suspicion that he had dealings with al-Qaida figures including bin Laden when the terrorist mastermind was in Afghanistan in the 1980s helping U.S.-supported freedom fighters.

But she said there was no evidence he committed a terrorist act.

Arnaout’s attorneys don’t dispute he knew bin Laden in the 1980s but say he is not an al-Qaida member and doesn’t support terrorism.

“This man has spent his life helping people in need,” defense attorney Joseph Duffy said. He said Arnaout helped military groups in Bosnia to get access to widows and orphans in areas under military control.

Federal agents raided the Benevolence office in Palos Hills and the group’s assets were frozen in December 2001, after the group had been quietly investigated for years.

Duffy told the court the FBI had placed informants within Benevolence as early as 1999.

Arnaout was in Bosnia at the time of the raid and hurried home to file a lawsuit against the government, demanding return of his documents. He was not arrested until April 2002 after a raid on Benevolence offices in Bosnia yielded what prosecutors described as key evidence.

Among other things, the minutes of the meeting at which al-Qaida was founded were discovered on a Benevolence computer, prosecutors say. They also found pictures of Arnaout and bin Laden on the computer, they say.

Prosecutors say they also found evidence that one of bin Laden’s aides Mamdouh Salim traveled to Bosnia in 1998 with papers indicating he was a member of the Benevolence Board. Salim has since pleaded guilty to attempted murder for stabbing a guard while awaiting trial in New York on charges of plotting to kill Americans.

Prosecutors also say Arnaout hired a high-ranking al-Qaida military commander to head the Benevolence office in Chechnya where Muslim rebels are fighting the Russian army.

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