Saudi charity remains open despite government orders to close it

Thursday, October 14th 2004, 2:21 pm
By: News On 6

RIYADH, Saudi Arabia (AP) _ Employees at a charity that Washington accuses of financing terrorism reported to work Thursday, despite a Saudi government deadline for the foundation to dissolve, and officials at the charity said they did not know when they would shut down.

The al-Haramain Foundation has been notified of the government decision to close it, a foundation official said. But a committee entrusted with liquidating it has not set a time for its closure, he said on condition of anonymity.

``Come here Saturday, come here Sunday, and you will see employees reporting to work,'' he said. ``The closure cannot happen with the push of a button.''

This month, a Saudi official said the charity had until Oct. 15 to cease all operations.

In September, Washington designated al-Haramain as a group suspected of supporting terrorism through its Springfield, Mo., mosque and its main U.S. location in Ashland, Ore. It said the charity ``shows direct links between the U.S. branch and Osama bin Laden.'' Assets of the two properties have been frozen since February.

Al-Haramain has repeatedly denied allegations that its donations fund terrorism.

Late Wednesday, another government official said the Riyadh-based foundation is as good as closed and any employees still on the job are merely dealing with paperwork.

Notices on boards at the entrance to the cream-colored, glass-fronted al-Haramain building read: ``We're sorry we cannot accept donations.'' Employees answering the telephone at the foundation this week have said staffers were being laid off.

Al-Haramain's financial assets will be folded into a new national commission being set up by the government to prevent charitable donations from bankrolling terrorism.

Interior Minister Prince Nayef has said there was no material evidence that Al-Haramain finances terrorism but suggested there could be unintended channeling of funds.

``This organization's administration and work is not well organized,'' Nayef told reporters in Kuwait during a weekend visit. ``It could allow leaks ... that could harm the country.''

Asked if there was any evidence that money from the charity ended up in terrorist hands, Nayef said: ``There might have been something against some individuals, but as far as material evidence, there was none.''

Al-Haramain's closure will mark a major milestone in the government's anti-terrorism campaign, the most aggressive in the Arab world. That clampdown includes strict oversight over charities so their money is not directed toward terrorism.

Saudi Arabia is also cooperating with the United States and other countries to track down terrorist suspects and upgrade its ability to fight them. Since Sept. 11, 2001, Saudi Arabia has questioned thousands of suspects and arrested more than 600 people with suspected terrorist ties.

The campaign gained momentum after al-Qaida-affiliated militants carried out attacks on residential compounds in Riyadh in May 2003.

Islam encourages charitable donations and Saudis are generous donors, especially during major Muslim events, such as the holy fasting month of Ramadan, which begins Friday.

Until the Sept. 11 attacks, few cared where their money went.

Years ago, pictures of wounded women and children in Chechnya, Afghanistan and the Palestinian areas plastered kiosks outside supermarkets and in souks. Saudis could give donations to practically anyone who approached them _ mosque preachers, obscure charities and _ according to militants' confessions _ al-Qaida operatives, who pretended the money was going to the needy or Iraqis.

Authorities now warn against giving money to preachers or restaurant owners to spend on fast-breaking meals for the poor. Suspected al-Qaida militants have said such money has ended up funding terrorist attacks.

Under new regulations, Saudis may deposit donations only in charities' bank accounts. Depositors must provide banks with identification. No cash withdrawals are permitted from the charities' account and all checks and drafts must support legitimate beneficiaries.

In May 2003, the government asked al-Haramain and other charities to suspend activities outside Saudi Arabia. The charity's branches in 10 countries, mostly in Africa and Asia, have closed.