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Islamic charity head pleads guilty | (UPI) -- The head of a suburban charity accused of funneling money to terrorist groups including al Qaida entered a guilty plea to racketeering Monday as jury selection was about to get under way.

Enaam Arnaout, 41, a Syrian-born resident of Justice, Ill., headed the Benevolence International Foundation, an Islamic charity based in Palos Heights. He pleaded guilty to a federal racketeering conspiracy charge before U.S. District Judge Suzanne Conlon. The other six counts in the indictment were dismissed, including one of aiding al Qaida.

The case was the first to be prosecuted by U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald since his appointment to Chicago. He was the New York prosecutor who led the successful prosecution of four men in the bombing of two U.S. embassies in Africa in 1998.

The Arnaout case was seen as important in the government's continuing investigation of Islamic charities and their role in financing worldwide terrorist operations.

Fitzgerald said the guilty plea provides a vindication for Muslim donors, who are required by the tenets of their religion to give to charity.

"When money is given for a stated purpose, it should go to that stated purpose," Fitzgerald told a news conference, adding that donors to Arnaout's organization were victimized when their funds were "diverted to support fighters overseas."

Fitzgerald said Arnaout has agreed to cooperate with the government's continuing investigation and such cooperation could lead to a recommendation for a lesser sentence.

Attorneys for Arnaout said in a statement the government acceptance of the guilty plea shows "neither Mr. Armaout nor BIF ever provided any support to al Qaida, Osama bin Laden, or any other terrorist organization. The agreement further demonstrates that Mr. Arnaout and BIF never supported any activity that was contrary to the interests of the United States."

Fitzgerald denied the assertions.

"The government ... stands by its assertions this charity did have a relationship to and supported al Qaida," Fitzgerald said. "Any representation that the government acknowledged otherwise is 100 percent wrong. We will deal with those issues at sentencing."

"There are 4 billion people in the world. Only one was found having founding documents of al Qaida in his possession. We have a witness saying he (Arnaout) was working with al Qaida. BIF from its first day was working with the mujahideen (Islamic fighters)," he said.

Fitzgerald discounted charges by Arnaout supporters that he could not get a fair trial in the United States, calling such charges "complete nonsense."

Arnaout, a naturalized U.S. citizen, was accused of lying in federal court documents in a civil lawsuit about links to international terrorism in a bid to unfreeze the foundation's assets. Specifically at issue were the charity's denials of providing "aid and support to people or organizations known to be engaged in violence, terrorist activities or military operations."

The government froze the foundation's assets in December 2001 because of the alleged terrorist ties. The civil suit still is pending.

Arnaout was not charged with any direct role in the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, just with providing funds to al Qaida and other violent causes.

Arnaout "admitted providing items to fighters in Chechnya and Bosnia that were other than for humanitarian and peaceful purposes," said Randall Samborn, a spokesman for the U.S. attorney's office.

Arnaout's attorneys said that support involved providing boots, tents, uniforms and an ambulance.

"Mr. Arnaout acknowledged today (Monday) that BIF did not tell its donors that a very small portion of the more than $20 million donated to BIF was spent on the support provided to the Bosnian army and Chechen fighters," the attorneys said.

Attorneys for the foundation had accused the government of basing its case on outdated information alleging the group was tied to reputed Saudi terrorist leader Osama bin Laden. The government said it has pictures seized from group's Bosnian offices of Arnaout posing with weapons, along with undated, coded notes dealing with placement of al Qaida fighters.

Arnaout has said he does not know bin Laden personally but that the two were both in Peshawar, Pakistan, in the late 1980s.

Arnaout, who has been jailed since April 28, faces a maximum 20 years in prison and $250,000 fine or twice the amount of the fraud, whichever is larger. The government, however, has put no dollar figure on the fraud.

Arnaout's next court appearance is scheduled for March 10.

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© 2002, UPI