Is Rabih Haddad a terrorist sympathizer? Did the Muslim charity he co-founded provide succor to terrorists, wittingly or unwittingly?
If federal investigators who raided the Global Relief Foundation and jailed the 41-year-old Ann Arbor man for alleged immigration violations have any evidence of wrongdoing, they are refusing to disclose it.
In fact, the government says it doesn’t have enough evidence to add the group to a list of 168 organizations directly linked to funding terrorism and insists that Haddad’s detention in solitary confinement is not related to the case against Global Relief Foundation (GRF), which had its assets frozen and its property seized.
“The government has reasonable cause to believe they are funneling money to terrorists,” says U.S. Treasury Department spokeswoman Tasia Scolinos about GRF. “That is why they are under investigation.”
Search warrants and evidence in the case are classified. No criminal charges are filed, and no evidence against Haddad is released. The FBI says Haddad’s detention and closed removal hearings are an immigration issue.
The Chicago-based charity had its international offices raided by the FBI, Treasury Department, CIA and NATO forces on Dec. 14 and three overseas employees were arrested that day. Haddad, the group’s president, has been jailed in Michigan by the INS — in solitary confinement — since then. This weekend, he was placed into the custody of the U.S. Marshal Service. At press time, not even his wife knew his whereabouts.
Haddad, his family, the press and the public have not been allowed into Haddad’s hearings, which his lawyer says are an attempt to have him removed from the country. Haddad has participated in the proceedings from his cell via closed-circuit TV. A federal immigration judge cited his ownership of a hunting gun as reason to consider him a flight risk, and he is being held without bond.
“If they have evidence that he’s done something wrong, then for God’s sake, bring the evidence forward and let him defend himself in a court of law,” says Haddad’s lawyer, Ashraf Nubani. “It’s the same with the organization. Don’t destroy the organization without letting us see the evidence.”
Statements by U.S. Treasury Department and NATO officials have linked GRF to al Qaeda and Osama bin Laden. At the same time, Treasury officials say they don’t have enough evidence to shut down GRF by adding it to the list of groups allegedly funding terrorism.
Instead, it is one of only two groups, along with fellow Chicago-based Benevolence International Foundation, that has had its assets blocked “in aid of an investigation.” GRF’s funds total about $900,000, according to the group’s attorney. The USA Patriot Act, which President Bush signed into law in October, clears the way for the Treasury to freeze assets during an investigation, Scolinos says.
“We have clear and credible information” that led to the actions, she says.
If GRF feels mistreated, she says, it is welcome to write a letter and meet with Treasury lawyers. “If that didn’t work, they could file a suit.”
GRF’s lawyer, Maryland-based Roger Simmons, says the government is trying the group in the court of public opinion. He says he’s already written one letter and is writing a second.
“If they have the hubris to say what they’re saying, they ought to come out and say it and show their evidence and allow us to defend ourselves,” Simmons says.
Simmons filed a federal defamation lawsuit in Illinois on Nov. 15 against several media organizations, including the New York Times, ABC News and the Associated Press. He says that in news coverage before the group’s assets were frozen, those media outlets and others “implied or said we were a terrorist organization.”
On Dec. 14, almost a month after the suit was filed, the group’s offices in Albania and Kosovo were raided. One employee in Albania was detained and released, while the CIA continues to hold two Iraqi employees of GRF from the Kosovo office “with no charges and no explanation of why,” Simmons says. Simmons says he arrived at GRF’s suburban Chicago office 20 minutes before the FBI and Treasury officials showed up.
After removing property and documents, investigators searched the Chicago home of the group’s executive director, Mohamad Chehade, for six hours, Simmons says, removing personal belongings, computer disks, Chehade’s “time management” doctoral work and his wife’s papers from her work as a private school teacher. Simmons says the investigators told him the search warrants were classified.
Later that day, Haddad was questioned at his Ann Arbor home and taken into custody by the INS, and the Treasury Department froze the assets of GRF.
Greg Palmore, of the INS in Detroit, says, “We have no comment until everything is said and done” in Haddad’s case. “We don’t respond in ongoing investigations.”
Haddad’s organization was founded 10 years ago in Chicago by Chehade, Haddad and a group of friends, says Chehade. Since then, he says, the group has raised more than $20 million for emergency relief, education and aid to people in 22 countries, including Chechnya, Albania, Jordan, Iraq, China and Ethiopia and in the Palestinian-occupied territories.
In a phone interview with Metro Times, Chehade denies any ties to terror.
“Even though there’s no accusation from the government side, the media reports have really been damaging. It’s going to take years to recover,” says the Lebanon-born graduate of Boston University, who has permanent resident status. He says his group had been growing in prominence.
Illinois tax records show that in 2000, donations came almost entirely from U.S. residents. From 1992 to 1998, donations averaged $1.4 million a year. In 1999, donations spiked to $4.8 million; in 2000, they were $5.3 million.
The group received $58,000 from Michigan residents in 2000, according to the Illinois records. The files only list donations greater than $5,000, and the group isn’t registered with the state of Michigan as a fund-raising charity.
Calls to major donors in Grand Blanc and Swartz Creek, Mich., resulted in “no comment” replies.
GRF was “a known organization in the community that people would have no problem donating to,” says Ibrahim Hooper, communications director for the Council on American-Islamic Relations.
In fact, while GRF and the Benevolence Fund had their assets frozen, other Muslim charities have been shut down entirely, and many Muslims are afraid to donate, Hooper says.
“Our position is that they need to go before a judge and jury and present evidence and let reasonable people decide if there’s been any wrongdoing” Hooper says. “It’s all done behind the scenes, with vague references to terrorism.”
As the government continues its investigation of GRF, Haddad remains jailed. The Lebanese citizen has been in the United States on and off for 14 years, and most recently came on a tourist visa that expired in 1999. He was one of hundreds of thousands of immigrants who applied for permanent residency under the LIFE Act of 2000.
He thought his application gave him legal status, said his lawyer, Nubani. But INS officials said that application under the LIFE Act does not protect applicants against deportation.
Nationwide, 460 people have been detained for various immigration law violations as a result of the federal government’s investigation into the terrorist attacks, says Dan Nelson, spokesman for the Justice Department.
Nelson says 314,000 “fugitives from justice” — people who have received deportation orders but disappeared — are being added to a criminal database to be picked up. He says hearings such as Haddad’s are occurring throughout the country, though he couldn’t say how many.
It’s estimated that 6.5 million people are in the country illegally, according to INS statistics, and the government is “focusing on individuals from countries with active al Qaeda cells” for removal based on visa violations, he said.
Haddad’s case is unusual because “he’s a very popular religious and community leader,” said Michael Steinberg, legal director for the ACLU of Michigan.
“He has a large following. Hundreds of people want access to the court proceedings in the case,” Steinberg says, adding that the ACLU knows of closed hearings taking place in New Jersey and that such hearings were “very rare” before Sept. 11.
Steinberg says it’s been difficult to determine just what the government is doing in regard to men of Middle Eastern descent in the United States. The ACLU filed a Freedom of Information Act request in December requesting the names of detainees, their location and the reason for their detention. The request was denied by the Justice Department, and the ACLU has sued in federal court, Steinberg says.
Last week, about 80 people, most from Ann Arbor, showed up outside Haddad’s closed hearing to call for his release and for the opening of the hearings. At a previous hearing, U.S. Rep. John Conyers (D-Detroit) was among those trying to get in.
“Conyers tried to go to the hearing himself and was denied access,” says Ray Plowden, chief of staff for Conyers.
Conyers has called for hearings on racial profiling, secret evidence and military tribunals, to be held Jan. 24 in the House Judiciary Committee, Plowden says.
“In America, one of our foundations was open trials and no secret evidence, so that you are able to confront the person who accuses you of anything and see the evidence against you, and you’re able to defend against that,” Plowden says. “Secret hearings and secret evidence, the congressman feels this goes against the grain of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence.”Lisa M. Collins is a Metro Times staff writer. Send comments to email@example.com