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Kurdish Defendants Find Support in Town's Clasp

(Nikki Kahn - The Washington Post)

"They are real Americans, you know?" said Mayor Larry Rogers, though he reserves judgment on the cases, adding, "we have bad seeds in all cultures."

Soon after they arrived, the refugees wanted to aid those left behind, and Qambari, Noroly, Rashid and Abdullah emerged as the mediums. They said they sent their own money and that of other Kurds to family or charities. The funds paid for utilities, medicine and food, they said.

"Big families. No work," said Noroly, 40. "They need money."

But Kurdistan's banks were unequipped to handle international transfers. So Noroly and the other men said they resorted to depositing it in accounts in neighboring nations and having it carried across the border. Qambari said he sent money from his checking account to a friend's account in Turkey, often charging a small amount to cover transfer fees. He never considered it a business.

The three other defendants said they sometimes sent money to accounts of people they did not know personally. Abdullah, 31, and Noroly said they occasionally reaped small profits. But they said they obtained business licenses from city officials and were unaware of other requirements.

The Kurds say their American idyll darkened after the 2001 terrorist attacks. The FBI began visiting and asking questions, as it did of many Muslims across the nation. The defendants said they told investigators about their transfers and were told not to worry. No one told them that the law involving money transmission had changed, they said.

Before 2001, the section of the U.S. criminal code under which the men were charged applied to those who operated money-transmitting businesses and knew they were doing so illegally. Under the Patriot Act, operators no longer have to know they are transmitting money illegally.

Federal authorities have since targeted unlicensed money-transfer businesses, sometimes called hawala s. From late 2001 through mid-September 2005, investigations resulted in the arrests of 155 people nationwide, 142 indictments and the seizure of $25.8 million. Some immigrant groups say that their relatives' financial lifelines have been cut off in the process.

In August 2004, agents raided several Kurdish homes in Harrisonburg. In October 2005, agents arrested the four men.

Through spokesmen, the U.S. attorney for the Western District of Virginia and the FBI, which led the investigations, declined to comment. But Dean Boyd, a spokesman for the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency, said it does not matter whether unlicensed transmitters help criminals -- they are soft targets all the same.

"Yes, many of them are used by immigrants to send money home to relatives," Boyd said. "But we found that a lot of the criminal element will go to those that operate underground. It's a backdoor way to get your money into the financial system."

Qambari, a father of five, chose to go to trial.

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