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Thursday, June 18, 2009

US govt unfairly targets Muslim charities: ACLU

By Barbara Ferguson

WASHINGTON: Harsh measures meant to combat terrorist financing are violating Muslim charities' rights by discouraging Muslims from the charitable giving of zakah, the American Civil

Liberties Union said in a report this week.

An expansion of laws and policies since 2001 has given the US Treasury Department virtually unchecked authority to designate charities as terrorist organizations and freeze assets without adequate safeguards to protect against mistakes or abuse, the study concluded.

But Federal prosecutors say some of these charities have served as fronts for terror-financing operations.

According to the ACLU report, government efforts to stop terror financing are too vague and are often applied unfairly to Muslim charity organizations.

It says the statutes are overly broad and enforced in a discriminatory manner, and permits a lack of due process.

This has resulted in starving Islamic charities of money and impeded Muslims' ability to fulfill zakah (one of the five pillars of Islam, a religious requirement to make charitable donations) in this manner.

The report is based on interviews with more than 100 Muslim community leaders as well as experts on antiterrorism laws and regulations. Though it gives no estimate of the decline in donations to Muslim groups, it says a total of nine Islamic charities have closed as a result of government action against them since the Sept. 11 attacks.

That action ranges, it says, from declaring a group to be under investigation to designating it a terrorist organization and freezing its assets.

The author of the report, Jennifer Turner, told reporters that US Muslims are being denied an important part of their religious practice by policies that target their charities. She also said such policies are counterproductive. While it is possible to give zakah informally, Islamic tradition recommends the money be amassed through charitable organizations that can do more effective charitable work collectively, such as building a hospital.

"They undermine America's reputation in the Muslim world, they alienate American Muslims who are key allies in the war on terror financing, and they kill legitimate humanitarian aid in parts of the world where charities' good works could be most effective in winning hearts and minds," Turner said.

Advocates for Muslim donors and organizations say the rules governing charitable giving are opaque or poorly defined. Donors could, for instance, find themselves in trouble for past gifts to an organization newly designated a terrorist group.

The leaders of one former charity, Holy Land Foundation for Relief and Development, were convicted in November of funneling more than $12 million to the Palestinian militant group Hamas. The US has designated Hamas a terrorist organization, making contributions to it illegal. Two founding members of Holy Land, once the nation's largest Muslim charity, were each sentenced last month to 65 years in prison.

Paradoxically, Access and one of the largest mainstream Muslim-American charities-Islamic Relief USA-say they have benefited from aggressive enforcement of antiterrorism laws.

Islamic Relief USA, an aid organization with affiliates around the globe, has seen annual donations rise to about $25 million last year from roughly $7 million at the time of the Sept. 11 attacks, with an additional $50 million in in-kind gifts, the group's spokesman, Mostafa Mahboob, told reporters.

But US government agents and prosecutors view the ACLU allegations with skepticism. Jim Jacks served as the lead prosecutor in the federal government's case against the Holy Land Foundation in Dallas last year. He read the ACLU report and found it wanting.

"There is essentially nothing in there that presents the evidence from the government's point of view," Jacks said. "We were never, obviously, contacted or sought to be contacted by the author, so, in that sense, you have to question the bias of the report and its validity."

Juan Zarate, a former Treasury Department official who investigated terrorist financing, told reporters that the tension between religious liberties and national security arises because of the way many terrorist organizations work. Groups like Hamas, Hezbollah or Palestinian Islamic Jihad actually do run hospitals and feed orphans and widows.

"They do have these social mechanisms that endear them to the local population, that give them resources," Zarate said. That enables them "to enlist the sons and daughters of those helped to then strap on bombs and suicide belts to carry out the terrorist agenda."

The ACLU report outlines clear measures the Obama administration and Congress should take to ensure American Muslims can exercise their religion while protecting charities from mistaken targeting and abuse, and simultaneously promoting national security and humanitarian aid.

In his speech in Cairo this month, President Barack Obama addressed the oversight of Muslim charities, saying the "rules on charitable giving have made it harder for Muslims to fulfill their religious obligation. That's why I'm committed to working with American Muslims to ensure that they can fulfill zakah."

Civil libertarians and Muslim advocates say the Obama administration has yet to take steps to address the problems.

The report is available at:

Source : Arab News

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