Federal court ruling could affect Columbia's Islamic American Relief Agency

Thursday, September 17, 2009 | 12:01 a.m. CDT; updated 8:25 a.m. CDT, Thursday, September 17, 2009
FBI agents participate in a raid at the offices of the Islamic American Relief Agency at 201 E. Cherry in Columbia on Wednesday, Oct. 13, 2004. Twelve different law enforcement agencies took part in the raid, including local police departments, the U.S. Secret Service and the Joint Terrorism Task Force.

COLUMBIA — At 2:30 p.m. on Oct. 13, 2004, agents from about a dozen federal, state and local law enforcement agencies raided the small headquarters of the Islamic American Relief Agency at Broadway and Providence Road. The agents confiscated truckloads of files, donor lists and other materials from the office.

Earlier that same day, the federal government had labeled the charity a “specially designated global terrorist,” immediately freezing the group’s assets. The U.S. Treasury Department alleged that IARA was part of a network of organizations that supported terrorism abroad.

IARA was one of eight U.S.-based charities whose assets were frozen by the Treasury Department in the wake of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. Using broad powers granted by an executive order signed by President George Bush just weeks after the attacks, the Treasury Department in each case did not obtain a warrant or court approval for its actions.

But a recent decision in a federal district court, in which the judge ruled the Treasury Department acted unconstitutionally three years ago in a similar case, calls into question the government’s authority to freeze assets and could have long-term implications for IARA.

IARA has always denied the allegations that it supported terrorism.

“We’re not prosecuting terrorists here, we’re prosecuting humanitarians,” said Shareef Akeel, a Detroit civil rights lawyer who has represented IARA in its case before the federal government.

In August, Judge James G. Carr ruled that the U.S. government could not freeze the assets of KindHearts — an Ohio-based charity that was part of a terrorism investigation — without a warrant based on probable cause, without telling the organization the basis for its action, and without giving it a meaningful opportunity to defend itself.

Carr rejected the government’s position that the Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which protects against unreasonable searches and seizures, was trumped by the national security authority of the president. The judge called the Fourth Amendment “a bulwark against the abuses and excesses of unchecked government authority.”

It’s unclear how the decision could affect IARA. Because Carr's ruling is just a district court decision at this point, it does not yet have legal bearing on other cases across the country. But if the government appeals the decision and the ruling is upheld, it could call into question all of the Treasury Department’s freezing of assets under its broadened authority, said David Cole, co-counsel on the KindHearts case and Georgetown law professor.

“In the government’s zeal to fight terror financing, it put in place a process that ignores some of our most important constitutional safeguards,” Cole said. He said he hopes the government chooses to acknowledge the problem and address it, rather than appeal the decision.

Treasury Department spokeswoman Marti Adams declined to comment on the details of the case or on whether the department plans to appeal the decision. But, in a statement, a department spokesperson said, "Treasury will continue to employ all authorities at our disposal to track and disrupt the deadly flow of money to terrorist groups.”

Akeel said the KindHearts ruling was exactly what IARA was looking for in its case against the government. He is cautiously optimistic that the charity will get another day in court, but he said it could be years before that happens.

“The pendulum is swinging toward justice in this case,” Akeel said.

IARA’s former executive director, Mubarak Hamed, declined to comment.

The “Islamic African Relief Agency, United States Affiliate” was founded in 1985 in Columbia by a Sudanese immigrant. The organization's stated mission was to provide humanitarian aid around the world, focusing mostly on the Middle East and Africa. In 1999, the charity changed the “African” in its name to "American," while a branch in Sudan continued to call itself the “Islamic African Relief Agency,” a distinction that would become important during the federal investigation.

Although the Columbia office of IARA was not independently designated in 2004 as a supporter of terrorist activities, it was considered to be a branch of the Islamic African Relief Agency and, therefore, faced the same consequences. The Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control listed IARA as an alias and affiliate of the Sudan-based charity and alleged that the groups raised more than $5 million to finance terrorist activities abroad involving Osama bin Laden, al-Qaida and Hamas.

"This is an excellent example of how U.S. government agencies coordinate their efforts to achieve the maximum impact against supporters of terrorism,” Stuart Levey, the Treasury Department’s undersecretary for the Office of Terrorism and Financial Intelligence, said at the time of the asset seizure. “The Treasury Department has been working closely with its colleagues in other agencies to ensure that, as a government, we do everything possible to shut down the flow of money to terrorists.”

Akeel argues that the government improperly linked the Columbia charity with its African counterpart, that the two groups were not affiliated, and that IARA had nothing to do with funding terrorist operations. He also says the government violated the charity’s constitutional rights by confiscating its assets without giving it a chance to defend itself.

“It’s not a Muslim issue. It’s not a charity issue. It’s an American issue,” Akeel said.

IARA filed a request in December 2004 in federal court to unfreeze its accounts with the Office of Foreign Assets Control, but the court ruled in favor of the federal government. Two years later, the charity brought its case to the U.S. Court of Appeals, and the court held that its claims were without merit and dismissed the case.

For now, the fate of IARA and other charities depends in part on the outcome of the KindHearts case.

“If a group is funding terrorism it should be stopped,” said Cole, the KindHearts attorney. “But the law is so broad and the procedures so limited that we have no idea whether the government has shut down organizations funding terrorism or just groups doing charity work.”

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