[When Imam Aref was arrested he was portrayed by the government as a terrorist because of his association with Dr. Dhafir; and Dhafir was portrayed as being a terrorist because of links to Aref. Both men were spiritual leaders in their respective communities.]

Motion to gain Albany mosque leader’s release in FBI case says writings show his support of U.S.

By BRENDAN J. LYONS , Senior writer TimesUnion.com 6/8/06

ALBANY — In their effort to portray an Albany mosque leader as having deep ties to terrorist figures, the Justice Department mistranslated and withheld key portions of Yassin M. Aref’s journal entriesthat showed he was deeply opposed to violence and supported U.S. efforts to overthrow Saddam Hussein.

Terence L. Kindlon, Aref’s attorney, makes that assertion in a 43-page memorandum in U.S. District Court in Albany filed late Tuesday. The motion, which seeks to have Aref released on bond, attempts to pick apart the federal government’s allegations that Aref is a terrorist sympathizer who came to the United States as a covert operative.

“For right now, I have no comment until I review the papers,” Assistant U.S. Attorney William Pericak said Wednesday.

It’s the fifth time since Aref’s arrest in August 2004 that Kindlon will seek to have his client released from jail while his case is pending. But the motion filed this week is the defense team’s most complete dissection yet of the Justice Department’s case. It questions whether the government purposefully mischaracterized its findings to bolster their case against the Muslim spiritual leader.

“The government skillfully weaves its misrepresentations together to create the illusion of a terrorist plot,” Kindlon wrote. “It is a shameful tapestry of lies designed to confuse anyone who reads it into accepting a fantasy world of government paranoia.”

Aref, 35, a Kurdish refugee from northern Iraq, moved to Albany with his family in 1999 through a United Nations-sponsored relocation program. He is awaiting trial on charges related to an FBI counterterrorism sting and has denied any connections to terrorism.

The alleged errors are critical because Aref is not accused by the government of having any direct ties to terrorist figures. Rather, the Justice Department has held up Aref’s contacts with certain people to bolster allegations that he lied on a visa application about having affiliations with certain political groups.

Federal authorities have painted Aref as an intelligent religious scholar with strong ties to some of the world’s most notorious terrorists, including Mullah Krekar, founder of a violent Iraqi terrorist organization with links to al-Qaida.

The government’s theory is rooted in a series of entries in Aref’s personal journals, which the FBI seized when he was arrested.

But over the past several months, in a series of jailhouse meetings, Aref and his attorneys have attempted to deconstruct the government’s allegations. Kindlon said he received help from Steve Downes, an attorney who retired last year as counsel for the state Commission on Judicial Conduct, and Kathy Manley, a lawyer at Kindlon’s firm.

The motion filed Wednesday retraces Aref’s flight from Iraq as a refugee, and outlines how he allegedly rebuffed terrorist sympathizers, supported U.S. efforts to overthrow Saddam Hussein, and was drawn into an FBI sting only because he had agreed to serve as a witness, under Islamic tradition, for a friend.

In 1999, four years after Aref and his family fled Iraq and went to Syria, a college friend helped Aref, then 29, get a job at an office in Damascus for the Islamic Movement of Kurdistan (IMK), which openly supported U.S. efforts to overthrow Hussein’s regime. In that job, Aref primarily assisted refugees who were traveling in and out of Iraq with money and travel visas, according to the motion.

The Justice Department has described Aref’s IMK connections as more sinister, and they have alleged the office there once may have been used to gather intelligence for Osama bin Laden’s terror network.

“Aref kept his IMK affiliation hidden and secret, specifically omitting any reference to the IMK in his 1999 refugee application,” according to a memorandum filed in March by the Justice Department. “Aref has had contacts with terrorists and discussions about terrorist acts.”

In addition to the alleged connection to Osama bin Laden’s terror network, the government said Aref’s name, Albany address and telephone number were found in several suspected terrorist strongholds during the war in Iraq.

But the motion filed this week accuses the Justice Department of misrepresenting Aref’s journal writings, including leaving out key entries that showed he opposed terrorism and the philosophies of Krekar, who did not found his terrorist group until after he had abandoned the IMK.

In fact, one of Aref’s journal entries shows he opposed a plan for Krekar to be the IMK’s European representative, which never happened. Aref met Krekar only briefly once, and did not know him personally, according to Kindlon.

Still, the Justice Department has keyed on Aref’s relationship to Krekar. In a memorandum filed last September in federal court, the government highlighted journal entries from Aref about an “American Plan” and implied he may have come to the United States at Krekar’s direction to carry out an unidentified terrorist plot.

According to Kindlon, the “American Plan” that Aref wrote about was actually a reference to “America’s plan” to overthrow Saddam Hussein.

“IMK was working with the Americans to promote America’s plan, and Mr. Aref was helping the IMK to encourage Iraqi opposition to promote America’s plan,” Kindlon said. “Mr. Aref was essentially trying to help the Americans, because their goal was the same as his — to liberate Kurdistan and get rid of Saddam Hussein.”

Kindlon said the Justice Department also cited a letter from the IMK they said was given to Aref a week before he came to the United States that identified him as their “representative.” The IMK, according to the Justice Department, has ties to terrorism although it has never been designated a terrorist organization.

But it turns out the letter referring to Mr. Aref as “our representative” was issued by the Islamic Center in Kurdistan, a grass-roots political organization, and not the IMK, Kindlon wrote. In addition, Aref refused to take the letter and wrote in his journal that he would not be pressured to represent the group.

“The government’s lie that Mr. Aref was the representative of the IMK is crucial to the government’s whole theory of the case, because it is through the IMK that the government tries to connect Mr. Aref to other individuals and organizations such as Mullah Krekar,” Kindlon said.

Aref’s alleged misrepresentations on his visa application has enabled the government to include information about his background in their sting case, which defense attorneys in the case have said would prejudice a jury.

Aref and Mohammed Hossain, an Albany pizza shop owner and co-founder of the mosque, were ensnared in the FBI sting in August 2004 and accused of taking part in a plot to make money from the sale of missile launchers to terrorists. The plot was not real and was created by the FBI, which used an informant to lure the men into the deal.

Officials have not accused Hossain of being connected to any terrorist groups. He is free on bond, as both men await trial.

The sting case against Aref is arguably weaker than it is against Hossain, in part because Aref did not stand to make any money in the plot and he also was not present when an FBI informant allegedly showed Hossain a missile launcher, according to court records.

The men’s attorneys claim that because of language barriers, they did not know the informant was planning to sell arms to terrorists. But the FBI has backed up their case with mounds of transcripts gleaned from taped conversations among their informant, Hossain and Aref.

The accuracy of the translations of those conversations is being reviewed by the defense attorneys.

Throughout the case, a federal judge has denied requests from the defense for complete access to classified government materials. In his latest motion, Kindlon said Aref still believes he will receive a fair trial.

“The simple truth is that Yassin has been ripped away from his family, and he is locked in a cold, dark, tiny cell, in solitary confinement, 23 hours a day, seven days a week, not because he has committed any crime … but because he was turned into the bogeyman,” Kindlon said.

Brendan J. Lyons can be reached at 454-5547 or by e-mail at blyons@timesunion.com.