- The Washington Times - Friday, August 20, 2004

Former neighbors of an Alexandria man arrested this week and indicted on charges of racketeering to fund terrorist activists in Israel said the man had been vocal about his opposition to U.S. policies in the Middle East during the five years he lived next door.

Abdelhaleem Hasan Abdelraziq Ashqar, a former business administration professor at Howard University, was one of three suspected members of the Palestinian militant group Hamas who were indicted Thursday in U.S. District Court in Chicago.

At the time that he was taken into custody Thursday night, Mr. Ashqar had been under house arrest since an indictment for criminal contempt. He had refused to testify about terrorist funding before a grand jury last year in Chicago, even though he had been granted immunity.

Mr. Ashqar was in federal court in Alexandria yesterday for a detention hearing. A U.S. magistrate ordered him held pending his transfer to face the latest charges in Chicago after a prosecutor said Hamas officials might help him flee the country.

Mr. Ashqar also was jailed for six months in 1998 for refusing to cooperate with a New York grand jury investigating terrorist financing.

John and Nubia Thornton said they had lived next door to Mr. Ashqar and his wife, Asmaa, in the 6100 block of Old Brentford Court for five years until the couple moved out this summer.

Mr. Thornton, who is retired from the military, and Mrs. Thornton, an accountant, described the couple as quiet, reliable neighbors. Both said they were surprised by Thursday’s arrests and had not suspected that Mr. Ashqar had possible terrorist ties.

“He didn’t have a reason to tell us that,” said Mr. Thornton, 58, adding that he believed the charges likely stemmed from a “slight incident that’s been blown out of proportion.”

“I just can’t believe it. I feel so sad for them,” said Mrs. Thornton, 49. “They were the best neighbors you could ask for.”

Mrs. Thornton recalled once seeing the Ashqars load hand-painted signs into their car for a political rally in the District. She said Mr. Ashqar took positions critical of U.S. policies in the Middle East, but she said she thought it was just idle criticism.

Mrs. Thornton said that after September 11 she and her husband visited the Ashqars to offer their support should the couple face any anti-Muslim bias in the neighborhood.

At the Ashqars’ current address in the 5800 block of Apsley House Court in Alexandria’s Wellington Commons neighborhood, residents were largely unaware of the arrest and had little but a passing knowledge of the Ashqars.

Dick Schimkus, 73, said another neighbor told him yesterday morning about witnessing federal authorities taking Mr. Ashqar into custody.

Mr. Schimkus, the president of the Wellington Commons Association, said the Ashqars moved into the neighborhood about a month ago and he had spoken with Mr. Ashqar just two or three days ago.

“I was kind of surprised that they arrested him,” Mr. Schimkus said.

He said Mr. Ashqar presented himself as a professor of business who taught at Howard University and Strayer University in Loudoun County. He said Mrs. Ashqar taught English to elementary school students at a nearby Islamic school.

Mr. Schimkus said Mr. Ashqar told him he had come into the country in 1989 on a scholarship to attend graduate school at the University of Mississippi. He was awarded his doctorate in business administration in 1997.

That account jibes with a biography Mr. Ashqar outlined in a lengthy affidavit last year explaining his refusal to testify before a federal grand jury in Chicago.

“I will not be examined about the Palestinian movement for justice, independence and statehood,” Mr. Ashqar said in one portion of the affidavit. “I will not allow the enemies of my people, whether it be Israel, or in this case, its surrogates here to use me against my people.”

Mr. Ashqar says in the affidavit that his visa expired in 1998, and he applied for asylum to remain in the United States, fearing retribution for his pro-Palestinian viewpoints if he returned to Israel.

His immigration status remained unresolved and in the meantime he taught business administration at Towson University and then the University of the District of Columbia in 1999 and 2000.

He was a professor at Howard University for three years, until June 2003 when the university did not renew his contract. He attributed his layoff to publicity surrounding accusations made against him by the government.

Mr. Ashqar withdrew his petition for asylum in 2002 because he feared he would be required to testify at the hearing. He was then subpoenaed to testify before the federal grand jury in Chicago and required to stay in the country until that matter could be resolved.

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