Saudi Official Fighting Wiretap Program in U.S. Courts

Soliman al-Buthi is a prominent religious leader in Saudi Arabia, a father of three and a ranking government official. He's also a terrorist, according to the United States and United Nations.

His lawyers argue that much of the evidence against al-Buthi was misinterpreted by National Security Agency officials who eavesdropped on conversations between al-Buthi and his American attorneys. Those intercepted communications are at the heart of a constitutional challenge to the Bush administration's warrantless wiretapping program, which was to be heard Wednesday by a federal appeals court in San Francisco.

Legal experts say that of the dozens of lawsuits alleging civil rights violations by the secret surveillance program, the one involving the Oregon charity that al-Buthi controlled has the best shot of succeeding. That's because al-Buthi and his lawyers claim to have proof their communications were monitored: a top secret NSA call log accidentally turned over to the defense team by government officials.

Al-Buthi was not expected to attend the hearing at the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals because he remains a fugitive in this country. He's also listed on an Interpol "no fly" list and is subject to arrest and deportation to the United States if he steps outside Saudi Arabia, which does not extradite its citizens.

He was recently promoted by the Saudi government to health department director in charge of inspecting restaurants and drafting plans to combat the spread of bird flu.

"I am a very respected person in Riyadh," al-Buthi said in a recent telephone interview with The Associated Press, referring to Saudi Arabia's most populous city and his hometown.

Al-Buthi first attracted the attention of the U.S. government when he arrived in 1999 in the quiet Oregon college town of Ashland, better known for its annual Shakespeare festival than as a center for fundamentalist Islamic teachings.

As director of U.S. operations for the Saudi-based charity Al-Haramain, al-Buthi used $187,000 in travelers checks to buy the property in Ashland that became the charity's U.S. headquarters.

On Wednesday, an attorney for the fugitive former director of the defunct charity said his client had decided to return to the United States to face federal tax charges accusing him of sending money to Muslim fighters in Chechnya.

Pirouz Sedaghaty, also known as Pete Seda, is facing conspiracy, money laundering and tax fraud charges claiming he helped smuggle $150,000 out of the United States to Saudi Arabia through the charity, then filed a false tax return to cover it up.

Sedaghaty, a native of Iran who is a U.S. citizen, decided it was time to confront the charges, his attorney, Tom Nelson, told The Associated Press.

"He is voluntarily returning home to clear his name," Nelson said.

Sedaghaty was co-director of the Al-Haramain Islamic Foundation chapter in Ashland, which the U.S. Treasury Department in September 2004 designated as a group supporting terrorism.

At its height, Al-Haramain raised almost $50 million a year in contributions worldwide, with the vast majority going to feed hungry Somali orphans, educate poor Indonesian students and help sick Kenyan children.

But Saudi officials shuttered the Al-Haramain headquarters in Riyadh after U.S. officials said a small percentage of the charity's funds were being siphoned for terrorist causes.

Al-Buthi was charged in a federal indictment with funneling more than $150,000 from Al-Haramain's Oregon bank account to Muslim terrorists in Chechnya. The government also alleged al-Buthi and the charity lied on a tax return, claiming the money was used to buy property in Missouri.

In September 2004, the U.S. Department of Treasury formally named him a "specially designated global terrorist."

"The investigation shows direct links between the U.S. branch and Osama bin Laden," The U.S. Department of Treasury said in a news release announcing that the Ashland charity and al-Buthi were being placed on the government's terror list alongside bin Laden.

"Information shows that individuals associated with the branch tried to conceal the movement of funds intended for Chechnya by omitting them from tax returns and mischaracterizing their use," it continued.

Federal prosecutor Christopher Cardani, who is in charge of the Oregon case, declined to comment.

Al-Buthi and his lawyers argue the terrorist label was wrongly applied to a man who has been investigated by authorities in Saudi Arabia, who found no merit to the claims.

"My government knows me very well," he said. "I have been twice interrogated."

Al-Buthi says the money ended up at a Chechnya charity for refugees rather than in the hands of terrorists. The tax issue, he says, was an innocent mistake made by the charity's accountant without his knowledge.

He also acknowledged that he erred in not declaring he was carrying such a large amount of money out of the United States, which requires anyone removing more than $10,000 from the country to report it. Al-Buthi says he was unaware of the requirement.

After receiving the call log and recognizing it as proof they had been wiretapped, al-Buthi and his attorneys sued the U.S. government.

Three appellate judges will now decide whether the eavesdropping program that allegedly ensnared them was illegal. A second lawsuit to be heard Wednesday by the 9th Circuit, by the Electronic Frontier Foundation, also challenges the constitutionality of the warrantless wiretapping program discontinued earlier this year by President Bush.

Administration lawyers are expected to argue that national security interests prevent them from mounting a defense and that the cases should be thrown out.