A federal judge Friday threw out perjury charges against a Chicago-area Islamic charity and its leader, but prosecutors quickly filed new, related charges just a few hours after the stunning courtroom ruling.
Prosecutors have alleged in court that Palos Hills-based Benevolence International Foundation and its executive director, Enaam Arnaout, have ties to Osama bin Laden's terrorist network, but defense lawyers have blasted the government evidence as weak and tenuous. Citing a 23-year-old U.S. Supreme Court decision as precedence, U.S. District Judge Joan Gottschall dismissed the two counts, ruling that perjury can't be charged on the basis of a document called a declaration, a statement filed in a court proceeding.
In a declaration that was part of a civil lawsuit the charity brought against the government for freezing its assets, Arnaout had denied Benevolence ever supported terrorist or military activities.
The government had contended those denials constituted perjury. Lawyers for Arnaout and the charity had argued, though, that the Department of Justice's own policy manual said perjury charges could only be brought for false statements made in court or in depositions, not in less formal declarations.
In her 22-page opinion, Gottschall agreed and held that Dunn v. United States, the 1979 Supreme Court decision, required her to throw out the indictment.
In a statement, U.S. Atty. Patrick Fitzgerald, who is personally prosecuting the case, said he "respectfully" disagreed with the judge's ruling. "The opinion relies on a technical interpretation of the perjury statute and has no bearing on the facts of the case," Fitzgerald said.
At about 8 p.m. Friday, less than four hours after the judge's decision, the government filed with a magistrate a criminal complaint charging Arnaout and Benevolence with two counts each of obstruction of justice and making false statements, authorities said.
Prosecutors won't release the criminal complaint until Monday when it is filed with the court clerk's office. But Randall Samborn, Fitzgerald's spokesman, said the allegations in the complaint are identical to the earlier charges, only brought under different statutes. The false statement charge is broader than the perjury statute and carries different requirements for proof, legal experts said.
In response to Fitzgerald's announcement, Joseph J. Duffy, Arnaout's lawyer, issued his own statement saying he was disappointed that the government filed the new charges. "In dismissing the charges, the court applied well-established law that Mr. Arnaout's conduct does not constitute a violation of law," Duffy said. "We are confident that he will be vindicated of the new charges."
In spite of the new charges, attorney Matthew Piers, representing Benevolence, vowed that he and Duffy would seek Arnaout's release from a Loop jail on Monday. Arnaout, a 40-year-old Syrian native, was arrested April 30 and has been held since at the Metropolitan Correctional Center in Chicago--in solitary confinement, according to his lawyers.
Seema Imam, vice president of the Muslim Civil Rights Center in Hickory Hills, said she was ecstatic about Gottschall's ruling and regarded it as an important sign that Muslims could receive fair treatment from U.S. courts. But Imam said she wasn't surprised that the government immediately filed new charges against Arnaout. "I feel it's unjust," she said. "When we have a judge finding something like that, why can't it be respected for Muslims?"
Thomas A. Durkin, an attorney for Global Relief Foundation, another local Islamic charity whose assets were frozen by the government, praised the judge's ruling. Durkin has been an outspoken critic of the government's hard-line tactic of prosecuting perjury in a civil lawsuit in which the government itself was the defendant.
"I thought this was the most heavy-handed prosecution I have ever seen," Durkin said. "I'm delighted the judge would have the courage to stand up to the government on it."
Rita Katz, director of the SITE Institute, a Washington terrorism research group, said she was astounded by the judge's ruling, given Arnaout's long-standing alleged connections to Osama bin Laden.
"According to government documents, his charity has been funding Al Qaeda, and whether or not he committed perjury, he belongs in jail for his terrorist activities," Katz said.
Benevolence filed the civil lawsuit after the government in December froze its assets as part of the Bush administration's effort to choke off funding to bin Laden's Al Qaeda network. Benevolence denied any link to bin Laden or anyone else engaged in violent activity and charged the government with violating its constitutional rights.
But government documents filed in the perjury case allege that Arnaout was part of bin Laden's inner circle during the struggle against Soviet occupation of Afghanistan in the 1980s. Afterward, bin Laden allegedly used Benevolence to funnel money to Al Qaeda, according to an FBI affidavit.The government also alleged that Arnaout and the charity had ties to violence in Chechnya. Arnaout also allegedly hosted a leading bin Laden operative's visit to Bosnia-Herzegovina in 1998, shortly before the operative was arrested on charges that he was part of bin Laden's worldwide conspiracy to kill Americans.