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Terrorism Financing Blacklists At Risk

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By Craig Whitlock
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, November 2, 2008

BRUSSELS -- The global blacklisting system for financiers of al-Qaeda and other terrorist groups is at risk of collapse, undermined by legal challenges and waning political support in many countries, according to counterterrorism officials in Europe and the United States.

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In September, the European Court of Justice threw the future of the United Nations' sanctions program against al-Qaeda and the Taliban into doubt when it declared the blacklist violated the "fundamental rights" of those targeted. The Luxembourg-based court said the list lacked accountability and made it almost impossible for people to challenge their inclusion.

Courts in Britain and France have also questioned whether European countries can enforce the U.N. sanctions and other blacklists without violating local laws, including a defendant's right to see evidence. The United Nations keeps such evidence secret.

The U.N. blacklist is the backbone of an international effort to prevent al-Qaeda supporters from raising or transferring money. All U.N. members are required to impose a travel ban and asset freeze against the 503 individuals, businesses and groups on the list. About $85 million in al-Qaeda and Taliban assets is frozen worldwide.

Enforcement, however, is inconsistent; some countries have quietly permitted alleged supporters of al-Qaeda to travel and to access their bank accounts.

Moreover, the U.N. program is just one of several terrorism-financing blacklists sponsored by the United States, the European Union and Britain. Although each is intended to prevent terrorism, they overlap and sometimes clash with one another, leading to confusion over whose assets, besides al-Qaeda's, should be frozen, and under whose authority. Hezbollah, for instance, is included on the U.S. and British blacklists. But it is not considered a terrorist group by the European Union.

Some counterterrorism officials say the blacklists are a vital, if imperfect, tool in fighting al-Qaeda and other groups -- particularly the U.N. sanctions program, which is the only one that governments and banks are compelled to enforce worldwide.

But other officials say the sanctions have outlived their usefulness. They note that al-Qaeda largely avoids the international banking system and needs only small sums of money to finance terrorist plots. The number of assets frozen in recent years by the United Nations, for instance, has remained static.

Worries About Procedures

In Europe, opposition to the blacklists has centered on what critics claim is a lack of due process and the potential for political abuse. People named to the U.N. blacklist cannot examine the evidence against them, cannot remain on the list indefinitely and are not granted an automatic right of appeal.

In January, the 47-nation Council of Europe, the continent's leading human rights watchdog, concluded that the U.N. and E.U. blacklists were "totally arbitrary and have no credibility whatsoever."

European prosecutors have dropped criminal investigations of several accused al-Qaeda financiers targeted by the U.N. sanctions after failing to find evidence that would stand up in court. But the United Nations has refused to remove all but one of those individuals from its blacklist, saying that it still thinks they are supporters of terrorism.

"You can be added to the list for political reasons, without any serious evidence of wrongdoing," said Armando Spataro, the deputy chief prosecutor in Milan, whose office investigated three people on the U.N. blacklist but found no grounds to press criminal charges. "There is a risk of making many, many mistakes."


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