DALLAS – Waseem Nasrallah, spokesperson for the Muslim Legal Fund, spoke to 25 activists at the Dallas Peace Center recently. He explained the case of the four Elashi brothers and their female cousin, all devout Muslims, who were arrested in a Dallas suburb on charges of having assisted terrorists.

They ran a computer company in nearby Richardson and assisted a local charitable association – the Holy Land Foundation. Among other projects, the Holy Land Foundation had raised money to assist needy Palestinian children.

The government charged that the defendants had shipped personal computer equipment to countries considered “terroristic” and had engaged in financial transactions in violation of the International Emergency Economic Powers Act.

People framiliar with the case said the computer company shipped no computer equipment to Syria nor Libya, and the financial transactions had nothing to do with terrorism. All the activities were open and above board. In fact, the U.S. government had full knowledge of the financial transactions for over six years

News reporters were alerted about the pending arrests so that they could participate in a media frenzy when the defendants were surprised by government agents just before Christmas last year, Nasrallah said. He told the group, “When they did the raid, those [media] people were there, and the pictures that they took were terrible.” U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft held a nationally televised press conference.

Normally, trial dates are set within three months of an arrest, but federal authorities asked the judge to delay the procedures while all but one of the accused are held in jail.

Nasrallah said official persecution against Muslims is growing. The FBI is now trying to get American mosques to reveal their membership lists.

“Some of the things that they are doing are unconstitutional,” he said.

Muslims and civil libertarians are joining together to fight back. The Liberty Task Force, formed with more than 10 organizations, has hired four Texas attorneys to defend the Elashis. They have made a short civil liberties video that is available at www.muslimlegalfund.org. On the video, Dallas County Commissioner John Wylie Price said the situation for Muslims reminds him of the McCarthy days of anti-communism. Price asks, “Just because the government says it, am I supposed to believe it? Where is the evidence?”

Even in the face of powerful forces against his efforts, Nasrallah told Dallas peace activists that he remains optimistic. “We are fighting this in court right now and we think we will be vindicated if there is still respect for justice in this country,” he said.

In the wake of Sept. 11, a series of raids against Muslim charities was conducted by the government. One, which garnered national attention, was in Chicago where the executive director of Benevolence International Foundation, Enaam Arnaout, was indicted in October 2002. Attorney General Ashcroft came to Chicago to announce the indictment personally. Arnaout was charged with crimes that included conspiracy to provide material support to terrorism. Originally the Justice Department claimed that Arnaout was the chief fundraiser for Al Qaeda. But on Feb. 10 all but one charge was dropped.

Arnaout admitted in federal court that, as head of the Benevolence International Foundation, he solicited money to help orphans and widows that was then used to buy boots, tents, uniforms and an ambulance for fighters in Bosnia-Herzegovina. He also used charity funds to purchase uniforms for fighters in Chechnya. But he did not concede that his $4 million-a-year charity was connected to terror in any way. His attorney told reporters that the deal was proof that Arnaout “had nothing to do with terrorism.”

Mark Flessner, a former assistant U.S. attorney in Chicago, told the press, “ … this agreement is also a clear indication that the government’s case was troubled. What this was was a fraud case that they tried to make into a terrorism case.”

Brandi Kishner contributed to this story. The author can be reached at pww@pww.org