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Muslim Charity Leader Sentenced to Prison

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(CHICAGO, 2003) - A Muslim charity leader linked by prosecutors to Osama bin Laden's terrorist network was sentenced Monday to more than 11 years in federal prison for defrauding donors. Enaam Arnaout, 46, a Syrian-born U.S. citizen who says he has met bin Laden but opposes terrorism, was calm as the sentence was imposed by U.S. District Judge Suzanne B. Conlon.

The government's investigation of Arnaout and his Benevolence International Foundation, based in suburban Palos Hills until it was shut down in 2002, has been a major component of the war on terrorism. Attorney General John Ashcroft traveled to Chicago to announce the charges against Arnaout when he was indicted. Arnaout (pronounced ARE-not) pleaded guilty to a racketeering charge, admitting that he diverted thousands of dollars from his Benevolence International Foundation to support Islamic military groups in Bosnia and Chechnya.

Conlon sentenced Arnaout to 11 years and four months in prison. He must serve nearly 10 years before he is eligible for parole. She declined to boost the sentence on the basis of Arnaout's ties to members of bin Laden's al-Qaida network, saying they supplied grounds for suspicion but didn't constitute evidence that he backed terrorism. She did give him extra time, saying the $200,000 to $400,000 he funneled to military groups deprived needy refugees of important aid. She ordered Arnaout to pay $315,624 in restitution and recommended that it be turned over to the United Nations for refugee work.

Arnaout, looking tired after more than a year in solitary confinement, spoke briefly before the court, saying he had been kidnapped by the government. He insisted he was innocent. "I came to this country to enjoy freedom and justice," Arnaout said. "I came to have a peaceful life." He claimed to have answered all the questions put to him by prosecutors in their investigation of al-Qaida. Prosecutors say he lied about his associations with bin Laden and his supporters.

Among other things, they note that one of bin Laden's top aides, Mamdouh Salim, traveled to Bosnia with papers showing that Salim was a board member of Benevolence International. They also noted that a man described by U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald as "a famous member of al Qaida" was hired by Arnaout to serve as the charity's top man in Chechnya.

Copyright © 2003 The Associated Press.