- The Washington Times - Monday, August 18, 2003

CHICAGO (AP) — A Muslim charity leader linked by prosecutors to Osama bin Laden’s terrorist network was sentenced yesterday to more than 11 years in federal prison for defrauding donors.

Enaam Arnaout, 41, a Syrian-born U.S. citizen who said he has met bin Laden but opposes terrorism, was calm as the sentence was imposed by U.S. District Judge Suzanne B. Conlon.

The government’s investigation of Arnaout and his Benevolence International Foundation, based in suburban Palos Hills until it was shut down in 2002, has been a major component of the war on terrorism.

U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft traveled to Chicago to announce the charges against Arnaout when he was indicted.

Arnaout pleaded guilty to a racketeering charge, admitting that he diverted thousands of dollars from his Benevolence International Foundation to support Islamic military groups in Bosnia and Chechnya.

Judge Conlon sentenced him to 11 years and four months in prison. He must serve nearly 10 years before he is eligible for parole.

She gave him a term longer than the eight to 10 years called for in sentencing guidelines because, she said, the $200,000 to $400,000 he funneled to military groups deprived needy refugees of important aid.

But the judge had earlier declined a prosecution request to boost the sentence to 20 years on the basis of Arnaout’s ties to members of bin Laden’s al Qaeda network. She said the links supplied grounds for suspicion but didn’t constitute evidence that he backed terrorism.

She ordered Arnaout to pay $315,624 in restitution and recommended that it be turned over to the United Nations for refugee work.

Arnaout, looking tired after more than a year in solitary confinement, spoke briefly to the court, saying he had been kidnapped by the government. He insisted he was innocent.

“I came to this country to enjoy freedom and justice,” Arnaout said. “I came to have a peaceful life.”

Arnaout claimed to have answered all the questions put to him by prosecutors in their investigation of al Qaeda. His attorneys said he met bin Laden in the 1980s when the terrorist mastermind was part of the U.S.-supported struggle of Afghan fighters to expel the Soviet army.

But they said he has had nothing to do with bin Laden in recent years.

Prosecutors said he lied about his associations with bin Laden and his supporters.

They said one of bin Laden’s top aides, Mamdouh Salim, traveled to Bosnia with papers showing that Salim was a board member of Benevolence International.

They said that a man described by U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald as a “famous member of al Qaeda” was hired by Arnaout.

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