Government wants Oregon Islamic figure held as flight risk

EUGENE (AP) — A missing passport and questions about whether he supports radical Islamic doctrine will keep the co-founder of a defunct Islamic charity in jail at least another two weeks after he voluntarily returned to face tax fraud and conspiracy charges.

Pirouz Sedaghaty, 49, also known as Pete Seda, left the country in 2003 during an investigation that resulted in a federal grand jury indictment in February 2005, accusing him of helping to smuggle $150,000 out of the country to aid Muslim fighters in Chechnya.

He returned exactly one week ago, on the same day that the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals was hearing arguments about warrantless wiretapping of the U.S. chapter of the Al-Haramain Islamic Foundation that Sedaghaty co-founded in the Southern Oregon town of Ashland in 1997. Sedaghaty pleaded not guilty to the tax and conspiracy charges last week, and asked to be released pending trial.

But the U.S. Attorney’s office asked that he be held in custody, arguing he is a flight risk, leading to a lengthy detention hearing on Wednesday before U.S. Magistrate Judge Thomas Coffin. The judge said he was being asked to decide whether religious beliefs could be the basis for keeping a person in jail, comparing it to whether a devout Christian opposed to abortion posed a danger to the community if he or she believed abortion should be prevented by any means possible, including violence.

Coffin said he expected to decide at the next hearing, in two weeks, whether to order Sedaghaty to remain in custody until trial or grant a conditional release.

Chris Cardani, the assistant U.S. Attorney handling the case, argued that Sedaghaty promoted a radical version of Islam based in Saudi Arabia known as Wahabbism, making him a danger because he could incite radical followers to acts of violence — even though he did not believe that Sedaghaty himself posed a danger.

”Are you telling me that you think he is a Trojan horse?” Coffin asked Cardani.

”Perhaps,” Cardani replied. He noted that Sedaghaty, a U.S. citizen who was born in Iran, had returned to the United States on a duplicate U.S. passport, and had not surrendered his Iranian passport until he appeared in court Wednesday. Cardani said that raised suspicions about where Sedaghaty had traveled the past four years, noting he had lived in Syria, Iran and the United Arab Emirates at different times.

Cardani said Sedaghaty offered no explanation about how he supported himself, noting he had trouble finding work and apparently had to live on less than $80,000 from the sale of a house in Ashland for more than four years.

But Sedaghaty’s lawyer, Larry Matasar, agreed to meet with federal investigators to document his travels pending another hearing in two weeks. He also said they would try to locate the original passport, believed to be with authorities in Dubai.

Matasar also said Sedaghaty has always been a moderate and had actually steered away from the fundamentalist version of Islam practiced in Saudi Arabia following the terrorist bombings of the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998 blamed on followers of Osama bin Laden — a Saudi.

”He’s just the opposite of a danger to the community,” Matasar told Coffin, after presenting two longtime residents of Ashland — a minister and a radio show host — who had known Sedaghaty for about 20 years and testified he had always promoted understanding between different religious faiths and a peaceful vision of Islam.

”He has consistently spoken out both publicly and privately for peace and understanding,” said Karen Caldwell of the United Methodist Church in Medford.

Matasar also called an expert witness, As’ad AbuKhalil, a California State University, Stanislaus, professor who disputed the government’s claim that Sedaghaty supported radical Islamic doctrine.

AbuKhalil said Saudi wealth is used to promote Wahabbism worldwide by funding mosques and charities, and distributing a Saudi version of the Quran called the ”nobel Quran” that has a more militant interpretation of its teachings.

Muslims seeking to perform charity work — one of the five pillars of Islam — often are forced to accept Saudi money in order to pay for buildings or supplies, and distribute the Saudi version of the Quran because it is typically the only free version available.

”The Saudis have been proven to have misused some of these charities for their own nefarious purposes,” AbuKhalil said.

But a witness for the government, author Daveed Gartenstein-Ross, a former Al-Haramain worker in Ashland, said the charity promoted radical Islamic doctrine by distributing the ”noble Quran” to U.S. prison inmates.

He noted that version supports violent jihad, or holy war, although he said that Sedaghaty had been upset by the embassy bombings and the link to militant Muslims.

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Religion News Blog posted this on Friday August 24, 2007.
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