Three years ago, two dozen FBI agents raided the headquarters of the Global Relief Foundation outside Chicago, the second-largest Islamic charity in the United States. Without a warrant, they stripped it clean of records and froze $900,000 in assets.
The same day, NATO troops searched the charity's offices halfway across the world in Kosovo, the strife-torn southern province of Serbia. A NATO statement cited "intelligence information" that some Global Relief officials may have been "planning attacks against targets in the U.S.A. and Europe."
Global Relief attorney Roger Simmons, surrounded by government evidence and correspondence related to the charity's closure, said, "We found ourselves trying to rebut newspaper reports from around the world."
(Ricky Carioti -- The Washington Post)
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It was another 10 months before the U.S. Treasury Department officially designated the charity a supporter of terrorism, citing links to Osama bin Laden. By then, Global Relief was already out of business.
"Our organization is dead and gone and cannot be revived now," said Roger C. Simmons, the charity's lawyer.
The designation process has set off an intense debate between attorneys for several Islamic charities in the United States, who say their clients are being denied normal U.S. legal protections, and government officials, who say that the designations are being carefully managed and reflect the realities of the post-9/11 world.
As of today, neither Global Relief nor any of its officials have been charged with a crime. Charity officials have also not had a chance to confront all of the government's evidence linking the group to terrorism. The classified evidence remains out of reach, and much of the unclassified evidence turned out to be allegations in newspaper clippings.
Global Relief is one of three Islamic charities that were forced to shut down before they were formally declared "specially designated global terrorists" as part of the U.S. government's three-year-old campaign to starve terrorists of funds. So far, more than 390 groups and individuals have been designated supporters or financiers of terrorism under the program -- meaning they are subject to seizure of assets and prevented from doing business with anyone without government permission.
The government's treatment of Global Relief and other charities "raises substantial civil liberties concerns," said a report on terrorist financing that the 9/11 commission published in late August. Being able to freeze assets of a group pending an investigation "is a powerful weapon with potentially dangerous applications when applied to domestic institutions."
Because U.S. authorities face enormous obstacles in gathering evidence usable in court, the report found, the Treasury designations were being based on more nebulous "links" to terrorists rather than hard proof of "funding." The report said attorneys for charities such as Global Relief -- "experienced lawyers steeped in the federal courts' rules of evidence and due process" -- found the designations "manifestly unfair," citing the use of classified evidence and material that would normally be considered hearsay.
A Treasury official said the government believes it is on firm legal ground. Global Relief failed in appealing the freeze on constitutional grounds. A federal judge who reviewed the classified evidence concluded that there was "probable cause to believe Global Relief and the executive director were agents of a foreign power." The charity now awaits a hearing on the merits of the government's evidence.
"The designation process, including the ability to block [funds] pending investigation, is a very important tool used to combat terrorist dollars," Treasury spokeswoman Molly Millerwise said.
Of the 20 groups or individuals who have tried to get their designation overturned, only seven have succeeded, six of them coming out of a single case. The rest face what amounts to a life sentence, their lawyers said.
"Once designated, there is no time limit for when the designation runs out," said Stanton D. Anderson, a Washington lawyer who until last month represented Saudi businessman Yasin al-Qadi, who was designated shortly after the 2001 terrorist attacks. "It's a lifetime bar. That's pretty draconian."
The charity lawyers complain that there is no legal definition of a "specially designated global terrorist." Millerwise provided a fact sheet from the State Department's counterterrorism office stating that a global terrorist is anyone determined "to assist in, sponsor, or provide financial, material or technological support for" anyone engaged in terrorism or designated as a terrorist supporter.