Friday, August 24, 2007

HOLY LAND FOUNDATION TRIAL: not the only current mockery of the Constitution

Religious beliefs at core of federal case
By Susan Palmer
The Register-Guard (Oregon)
Published: Thursday, August 23, 2007

An awkward dance between church and state played out in a federal courtroom on Wednesday as lawyers used a Muslim man's religious beliefs to try to determine his threat level to the community. Much of the detention hearing for Pirouz Sedaghaty, also known as Pete Seda, focused on just how extreme a Muslim the former Ashland resident is.

A native of Iran who is now an American citizen, Sedaghaty is accused of conspiring to defraud the United States and filing false tax returns for his nonprofit organization, which the U.S. Treasury Department placed on a terror list in 2004.

U.S. Magistrate Judge Thomas Coffin postponed for two weeks a decision on whether Sedaghaty must remain behind bars as he awaits his trial. The judge also acknowledged the unusual nature of the proceeding. "I've never had a detention hearing like this," he said.

Sedaghaty, a longtime arborist in Ashland [Oregon], co-founded a U.S. branch of the Al-Haramain Islamic Foundation in 1999. The Saudi-Arabian-based charity has offices throughout the world. In 2004, the Treasury Department froze its assets, saying it was funneling money to al-Qaeda and had direct links to Osama bin Laden.

In 2003, during the investigation, Sedaghaty fled to Saudi Arabia. He was indicted in 2005, the government charging that $150,000 raised by the organization was illegally smuggled out of the country by the group's co-founder, Soliman Al-Buthi, a Saudi citizen. The Al-Haramain foundation claimed the money was used to purchase property in Missouri when it actually went to Islamic fighters in Chechnya, according to the indictment.

Last week, Sedaghaty returned to Oregon to face the charges, and Al-Haramain filed suit in Portland to get itself removed from the government's list of groups suspected of supporting terrorism.

In a packed federal courtroom on Wednesday, U.S. Attorney Christopher Cardani characterized Sedaghaty as an extremist who espouses violence against those who don't embrace a fundamentalist form of Islam. If not a terrorist himself, Cardani said, he is someone willing to funnel money to terrorist causes. He also paid for an Internet Web site that gives extremists a communications platform in the United States, Cardani said.

"I don't know that we're trying to depict him as a terrorist," Cardani said. "Our concern is one of hateful ideology."

Prosecution witness Daveed Gartenstein-Ross, who worked at the foundation in Ashland for a year in 1999, said that among Sedaghaty's projects was a prison outreach effort that funneled a fundamentalist translation of the Quran, the Muslim holy book, to hundreds, perhaps thousands, of prison inmates who expressed an interest in the religion. That translation encouraged violence, Gartenstein-Ross said. "I have not heard him say you should kill infidels," he acknowledged when questioned by defense attorney Lawrence Matasar. "But the organization as a whole distributed literature that said you should engage in conflict."

Matasar countered with Ashland witnesses who have known Sedaghaty for years, one a Methodist minister, the other well-known public radio talk host Jeff Golden. Golden said he'd known Sedaghaty since 1990. "I feel strongly he's a positive force in the community," Golden said.

The defense lawyer also brought in a Mideast scholar who pointed out that Sedaghaty's version of Islam, Wahhabism, which was noted by prosecutors, is the official religion of Saudi Arabia. "He distributed books promoted by one of America's closest allies. That's not a cause for detention," Matasar said. His client's own writings in a pamphlet on Islam indicate a less-extreme point of view, he said.

Judge Coffin noted the challenge in dealing with evidence centered on a person's religious beliefs. "One certainly must be delicate in determining the inferences to be drawn from them," he said, then asked prosecutors what kind of threat a man who had voluntarily surrendered poses. "Are you telling me he's a Trojan horse?" Coffin asked Cardani.

"Perhaps," Cardani said. But the prosecutor was more concerned about a lack of information on Sedaghaty's movements and activities during the 4 1/2 years he was outside the United States, a missing copy of his U.S. passport, and the possibility that he might try to raise funds for terrorists or encourage others toward violence if he's not held.

Coffin suggested some conditions as terms for Sedaghaty's release, such as barring him from distributing certain kinds of literature, "although I don't want to get into the role of censor," he said.

The judge agreed to postpone a decision for two weeks while Sedaghaty explains his actions while he was outside the country and so he can obtain a copy of his U.S. passport, believed to be in Dubai.

The case comes as judges throughout the country weigh the use of religious faith as evidence in terrorism cases, according to an October 2006 article in The Atlantic Monthly. "That continuum of religious dogma presents a challenge for Islam, but also for the American court system, where the effort to try terrorist extremism has arguably resulted in the trial of Islam itself," wrote Atlantic correspondent Amy Waldman.

The issue troubles University of Oregon law professor Garrett Epps. Epps recognizes that prosecutors in such cases have a real challenge and said he doesn't want to criticize Cardani. "It's one thing to detain someone who could be involved in the illegal transfer of funds, but quite a leap to detain him because you don't like the version of the Quran he is circulating," Epps said.

"The problem with the historical moment we live in is there is a tremendous amount of hostility toward this minority religion. I think certain people in our political system and in our government have blurred the issue, and it's playing with fire."