Islamic Charity Founder's Trial Starts

Article excerpt

Byline: Karen McCowan The Register-Guard

There are no terrorism charges in the U.S. government's tax fraud and money-smuggling case against an Ashland Islamic charity founder, the prosecutor told a jury Monday during opening arguments in the trial of Pete Seda.

But Assistant Oregon U.S. Attorney Chris Cardani repeatedly invoked the word "jihad"- an Arabic word for "holy war" - and images of Muslim fighters in Chechnya to suggest a radical motive for the Iranian-born U.S. citizen's alleged financial crimes.

And both U.S. District Judge Michael Hogan and Seda's defense attorney repeatedly probed prospective jurors' views of Islam.

Hogan disqualified one possible juror who disclosed "a general mistrust of Muslims." Among those seated on the panel was another who said the only thing she knew about Muslims was "9/11 and what our country's gone through," but said she thought she could judge Seda objectively.

In his opening statement, defense attorney Lawrence Matasur told the all-white panel of eight women and four men that Seda was a moderate Muslim and interfaith peacemaker who became a victim of guilt by association in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

The case comes to trial more than five years after the U.S. Attorney filed charges of conspiracy to defraud the United States and filing a false return by a tax-exempt organization against Saudi Arabia-based Al-Haramain Islamic Foundation, Inc. and Seda, who co-founded a U.S. branch of the group in the late 1990s. Also charged in the 2005 case was the other U.S. branch co-founder, Soliman Al-Buthe, accused of conspiracy and of failure to report the international transportation of currency.

The government charges that Seda and Al-Buthe conspired to channel an Egyptian man's $150,000 donation through Al-Haramain USA's Ashland bank, convert it into travelers checks, and smuggle it out of the country to Muslim Mujahideen fighting Russian soldiers in Chechnya. Cardani alleged in his opening statement that the two took great pains to conceal the transaction, which could have been conducted as a wire transfer. He also said Seda filed a phony 2000 tax return showing that the money went toward purchase of a Missouri Islamic prayer house.

Al-Buthe is in Saudi Arabia, where he cannot be extradited to face his charges.

A judge dismissed all charges against Al-Haramain in 2005, but U.S. District Court Judge Michael Hogan refused to dismiss the case against Seda, 52.

Matasur told the jury that Seda was born Pirouz Sedaghaty in Iran, that he immigrated to the United States in 1976, coming to Ashland, where he attended college, worked for the forest service, and eventually founded his tree care business, The Arborist.

He Americanized his name and, in 1994, became a naturalized U.S. citizen, the defense attorney said. He also continued to practice his Muslim faith, opening his home for prayer services and setting up a Koran Foundation to give away copies of the faith's holy book. …