Islamic charity searched; residents say founder was peaceful community activist

Friday, February 20th 2004, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

ASHLAND, Ore. (AP) _ While a Saudi charity with an office here is under investigation for allegedly funneling money to international terrorists, neighbors who know its founder say the man is a peace-loving patriot who became a U.S. citizen and community activist before moving to Dubai a year ago.

FBI and Internal Revenue Service agents searched the Al-Haramain Islamic Foundation Inc. office this week, seizing financial records, other documents and computers, officials said Thursday.

No criminal charges have been filed against the organization or its founder, Pirouz Sedaghaty, also known as Perouz Seda Ghaty or Pete Seda. His lawyer, Larry Matasar, said federal officials told him the investigation is tax-related, and not of a criminal nature.

In a statement released by Matasar, Seda said: "I am a man of peace, and have consistently and actively opposed terrorism. I am certain that once all the facts come out, it will be clear that neither Al Haramain Oregon nor I have engaged in any criminal activities."

But the 47-page search warrant, served Wednesday, and supporting IRS affidavit allege that Seda, listed as secretary of the foundation, and Soliman H.S. Al-Buthe, the treasurer, attempted to conceal the transfer of $130,000 in American Express traveler's checks and a $21,000 cashier's check intended for aid to Muslims in Chechnya in mid-March of 2000.

The IRS affidavit also says Seda, who moved to Dubai about a year ago to study Islam, tried to mislead the IRS about where the money went.

Residents who knew Seda, who came to Ashland from Iran in the 1970s, said they found it impossible to believe he would be involved in anything sinister: A regular fixture in town, Seda appeared in the Fourth of July Parade with his pet camel, taught schoolchildren about Islam and used the arborist business he built to relocate trees caught in the path of development, free of charge.

"I have seen Pete in public since the 1980s take courageous stands against violence, for the security of Israel and against Islamic extremism," said Rabbi David Zaslow, from his office at Havurah Synagogue.

Zaslow said Seda may be guilty of naivete, but nothing else.

"I'll bet the house on it," he said.

The parent charity for Al-Haramain has been shut down in 10 countries for suspected ties to al-Qaida and other terror groups. The Treasury Department on Thursday moved to block the assets of the Oregon branch "pending investigation" under the 2001 USA Patriot Act.

Paul Copeland, co-chairman of the local American Civil Liberties Union, said Seda spoke out against the Patriot Act that is now being used to investigate him.

"A year and a half ago, he said, `I love this country. I came here as a refugee. I'm a patriot, too,'" said Copeland. "I feel like we hounded one of our upstanding citizens out of the country with overzealous law enforcement."

The Treasury's actions are part of a larger probe into Al-Haramain's operations worldwide, and will help the government determine if there are al-Qaida ties at the U.S. branches, said Juan Zarate, Treasury's deputy assistant secretary for terrorist financing and financial crimes. The United States has already moved to freeze the assets of six foreign branches of Al-Haramain that it contends diverted money to support al-Qaida.