CHICAGO – A federal magistrate judge refused Monday to throw out perjury charges against a charity and one of its directors accused of lying about ties to Usama bin Laden and his terrorist network.
Magistrate Judge Ian Levin said evidence that Benevolence International Foundation sent aid to rebels fighting the Russian army in war-torn Chechnya was enough to warrant the perjury charges.
Benevolence attorneys had hoped Levin would find there was no probable cause for the charges and throw them out. They argued that the government's evidence of ties to terrorism was flimsy at best.
But Levin ruled there was probable cause to proceed with the charges and take the case to a federal grand jury for further action.
Benevolence and jailed director Enaam Arnaout are accused of lying when they said in a sworn statement filed in a civil lawsuit that they did not provide any support to "people or organizations known to engage in violence, terrorist activities or military operations of any nature."
Benevolence assets were frozen Dec. 14 as part of the terrorism investigation. The charity has filed a civil lawsuit asking a federal court to release the assets and return documents seized in a Dec. 14 raid.
Benevolence, based in suburban Palos Hills, and Arnaout filed the sworn statement the government claims to be false in that civil lawsuit.
In his ruling, Levin focused mainly on an X-ray machine sent to Chechnya along with anti-mine boots and $685,000 in financial aid that he said represented enough evidence to warrant the perjury charge.
Benevolence attorneys argued that there was no evidence to show exactly where the money went. They said it could have been destined for refugee relief or medical aid.
Attorney Matthew Piers said the evidence was so weak that prosecutors were asking the court to make "a huge leap of faith" in finding any military involvement on the part of Benevolence.
U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald, who is personally conducting the prosecution, scoffed at that notion, saying the evidence was plain.
"It's not a huge leap of faith, it's just common sense," he said.
In the end, Levin ruled that Benevolence "did in fact send support to the Chechyan mujahideen who were engaged in fighting."
He also noted one photo of bin Laden and several others that prosecutors say are of Arnaout found on a computer disc when police with FBI agents looking on raided Benevolence offices in Bosnia on March 19.
Levin had sealed the photos on Friday at the request of defense attorneys but unsealed them Monday, despite complaints from Benevolence that allowing them to be shown in the media could taint a future jury.
One of the photos shows a younger-looking bin Laden at a rural encampment, possibly in Pakistan or Afghanistan. Another shows a man prosecutors claim is Arnaout at what might be the same location.
Benevolence attorneys say the pictures apparently were taken in the 1980s when the United States was allied with Afghan rebels and bin Laden in their guerrilla war against the Soviet Union. They also question whether the man in some photos is Arnaout.