William Fisher IPS 4/20/06

A major government watchdog group is charging that Muslim charities are being shut down for supposedly backing terrorist causes, while giant firms like Halliburton are receiving the full protection of U.S. law for allegedly breaking government sanctions against doing business with Iran — a country designated as a sponsor of terrorism.

“There is unequal enforcement of anti-terrorist financing laws,” says the Washington-based non-profit OMB Watch.

The group says the USA Patriot Act gives the government “largely unchecked power to designate any group as a terrorist organisation”. And once a charitable organisation is so designated, all of its materials and property may be seized and its assets frozen. The charity is unable to see the government’s evidence and thus understand the basis for the charges.

Since its assets are frozen, it lacks resources to mount a defence. And it has only limited right of appeal to the courts. So the government can target a charity, seize its assets, shut it down, obtain indictments against its leaders, but then delay a trial almost indefinitely.

Kay Guinane, OMB Watch’s director of Nonprofit Speech Rights, told IPS, “The real tragedy behind closure of Muslim charities is the fate of people in need of humanitarian assistance, who are doing without because the funds have been frozen by the U.S. and sit in the bank, benefiting no one.”

“The U.S. government could demonstrate its good faith by releasing these funds to other charities or aid agencies,” she suggested.

Thus far, OMB Watch says, the effort has resulted in the government shutting down five charities that support humanitarian aid in Muslim areas without disclosing any official finding that they were aiding terrorist organisations. There has only been one indictment, no trials, and no convictions.

They include two Chicago-area Islamic charities, the Global Relief Foundation and the Benevolence International Foundation, the Holy Land Foundation for Relief and Development in Texas, the Islamic American Relief Agency and the Al-Haramain Islamic Foundation.

OMB Watch says that dozens of charitable groups have been investigated since 2001. The organisations shut down were not on any government watch list before their assets were frozen, it adds.

The result is that Muslims have no way of knowing which groups the government suspects of ties to terrorism. “Organisations and individuals suspected of supporting terrorism are guilty until proven innocent,” it says.

To support its claim that the government is applying the law unevenly and targeting Muslim-American groups, OMB Watch cites the government’s “velvet glove” treatment of the Halliburton Corporation, a giant defence contractor once headed by Vice Pres. Dick Cheney.

Halliburton has been under investigation by the Treasury Department, which oversees the terror-financing campaign, and the Department of Justice since 2001 for doing business with Iran, which is listed as a sponsor of terrorism.

But, says OMB Watch, rather than seizing and freezing assets “pending an investigation”, Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) and the Justice Department sent an inquiry to Halliburton requesting “information with regard to compliance”.

Halliburton sent a written response explaining why it felt it was in compliance with the law. Halliburton’s defence seemed to rest on the fact that its dealings with Iran were done through a Cayman Islands subsidiary, not its U.S.-based entity.

Over two years later, in January 2004, OFAC sent a follow-up letter requesting additional information, to which Halliburton responded that March. In July of that year, the U.S. attorney for the Southern District of Texas sent a grand jury subpoena requesting documents and the case was referred to the Justice Department.

On Sep. 22, 2005, the Progressive Caucus in the House of Representatives wrote to Pres. George W. Bush, asking that Halliburton be suspended from hurricane relief contracts for a host of reasons, including “dealing with nations that sponsor terrorism”.

The White House took no action and Halliburton received no-bid contracts valued currently at 61.3 million dollars, and growing, to provide clean-up, rebuilding and logistical assistance to victims of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita.

Last year, an organisation called Halliburton Watch charged that the handling of the case against the company raises serious legal questions. For example, “If Halliburton were a charity, would its assets have been frozen like the U.S.-based Muslim charities?”

“Even though little is known about the evidence OFAC relied on to freeze and seize assets of Muslim charities, it appears there is much stronger evidence against Halliburton — what legal distinction is OFAC making. If U.S. charities formed Cayman Island subsidiaries, could they avoid the USA PATRIOT Act, IEEPA, and Executive Order restrictions on dealings with groups or countries linked to terrorism?” the group asked.

Halliburton has also become the poster child for waste, fraud and abuse among U.S. contractors in Iraq. To date, it has received more than 12 billion dollars in contracts there, many of them on a no-bid basis.

The company failed to account for 43 percent of its Middle East expenses, with one billion dollars of those being considered “unreasonable” and another nearly half-billion in the “unsupported” category, according to Defence Department auditors.

Critics say the government’s anti-terror financing campaign is a product of the paranoid Islamophobia that has gripped the U.S. since 9/11. They also say is has had its desired effect: to scare Muslim-Americans into abandoning one of the premier tenets of Islam — giving to those in need.

The government denies these charges, saying it is merely trying to cut off funding to a wide variety of so-called charitable organisations that funnel money to groups that practice terrorist tactics. The Treasury Department cites Pres. Bush’s pledge to ensure “that Arab Americans and American Muslims feel comfortable maintaining their tradition of charitable giving”.

Meanwhile, Muslim charities report a precipitous decline in contributions. Contributions that do arrive come increasingly in cash from anonymous givers. And donors who happen to be Muslim are increasingly turning to the large household names like Oxfam and Save the Children, which may conduct programmes in predominantly Muslim areas abroad.

Leaders of the Muslim charitable community in the U.S. have had numerous meetings with officials at the Treasury Department, and together developed a set of “guidelines” for charitable organisations and their donors.

But these guidelines lack any specificity regarding Muslim philanthropy and could be applied to any charitable organisation. They also provide no safe harbour from being shut down. OMB Watch told IPS, “A group could comply 100 percent and still be shut down ‘pending an investigation’.”

Leaders of the Muslim philanthropic community in New Jersey asked the Treasury Department at the start of Ramadan in 2004 to issue a “white list” of “approved” charities. But the request was denied.

The government claimed it was impossible to fulfill. “Our role is to prosecute violations of criminal law,” a spokesman said, adding, “We’re not in a position to put out lists of any kind, particularly of any organisations that are good or bad.”

But government critics also claim that Treasury’s campaign is reminiscent of the activities of John Ashcroft’s Justice Department in the months following the terrorist attacks of Sep. 11, 2001 on the World Trade Centre and the Pentagon.

The government then launched its “Global War on Terror” by rounding up thousands of “Middle Eastern-looking” men and women, sending them to jail without charges or access to lawyers, holding many in solitary confinement, but accusing none of them with terror-related crimes, convicting no one, and ending up deporting some for non-criminal immigration violations. (END/2006)