EUGENE — A prosecution witness testified Wednesday in the trial of an Ashland man accused of smuggling money to Muslim fighters in Chechnya that the Islamic charity they both worked for subscribed to a harsh form of the faith and distributed Qurans that called for waging holy war.
But under cross examination, David Gartenstein-Ross acknowledged he told investigators four years after the smuggling allegedly occurred that Pete Seda hated terrorism and believed it gave Islam a bad name.
Seda, also known as Pirouz Sedaghaty, is on trial in U.S. District Court on charges he and a fellow officer of the U.S. branch of the Al-Haramain Islamic Foundation smuggled $150,000 to Saudi Arabia in March 2000 in hopes the money would reach mujahideen in Chechnya.
Seda also is accused of filing false tax forms showing the money went to buy a prayer house in Springfield, Mo., to cover their tracks.
Gartenstein-Ross, a counterterrorism analyst with the Foundation for the Defense of Democracy in Washington, D.C., was the last in a string of witnesses prosecutors have called to show what was in Seda's mind when he helped Soliman Al-Buthe convert $150,000 from an Egyptian donor in London into $130,000 worth of traveler's checks and a $21,000 cashier's check.
The prosecution has offered evidence Al-Buthe, who has been indicted but cannot be extradited from Saudi Arabia, took the money from Ashland to Saudi Arabia and deposited it in a bank in Riyadh, without declaring he was taking a large sum out of the country.
After that, there has been no hard evidence showing where the money ended up. But there has been testimony that money was typically broken into small amounts of cash and smuggled by hand into Chechnya, where foreign Islamic fighters had moved after driving the Soviets out of Afghanistan.
Seda is not accused of terrorism. The U.S. Treasury Department in 2004 declared the foundation branch he ran was a terrorist organization for being part of the larger organization in Saudi Arabia, which was accused of funneling money to terrorists. The Ashland branch's assets were frozen and sold off. But a federal judge ruled in 2008 that the chapter's constitutional right to due process was violated because the Treasury Department never gave it a chance to refute the designation.
Gartenstein-Ross testified he was born to Jewish parents in Ashland and looking for a religion that offered certainty when he converted to Islam. After graduating from Wake Forest University, he returned home in December 1998 to work for Seda at his Quran Foundation, dedicated to sending copies of the Quran to prison inmates.
After it became affiliated with Al-Haramain, Seda kept up that work. Gartenstein-Ross left the foundation in August 1999.
He said his duties included handling copies of questionnaires sent to prison inmates to determine which ones were Muslims, and sending out 15,000 copies of the so-called Noble Quran, which included an appendix that called for all Muslims to embrace jihad, the holy war against nonbelievers. Non-Muslims got a copy of a more moderate translation that did not call for jihad.
Gartenstein-Ross testified that after Al-Haramain took over, guest speakers at Friday prayers urged worshippers to adopt a more harsh interpretation of Islam, and one, whom Seda showed great respect for, suggested that people who leave the faith should be killed as traitors.
When defense attorney Steve Wax confronted Gartenstein-Ross about his statement to investigators in 2004, Gartenstein-Ross acknowledged he told them Seda hated terrorism, adding that he changed his mind about Seda after learning where the money went.
Wax loudly asked Gartenstein-Ross if he had any firsthand knowledge where the money ended up, and Gartenstein-Ross replied, "No."
Wax followed up asking if he recalled talking with Seda about a religious edict issued by Osama bin Laden calling on Muslims to kill Americans, and Gartenstein-Ross replied, "He said it was against Islam."
Medford accountant Tom Wilcox testified that he prepared Seda's application for Al-Haramain in Ashland to become a tax-exempt organization, as well as annual tax reports. He said he had difficulty getting Seda and others at the foundation to provide information for the filings, and ended up entering some data himself that clients would normally take care of.
Wilcox said Seda told him a check for $21,000 was a refund of a donation made by Al-Buthe.
Earlier testimony established the check covered a cashier's check Al-Buthe took from Ashland and deposited in a bank in Saudi Arabia without declaring he was taking more than $10,000 out of the country.
Customs agent Kevin Tyrell testified that while records showed Al-Buthe declaring money he brought into the country nine different times between 1997 and 2000, none of them was for money he took out of the country.
Missouri attorney Raajideen Kanan testified he handled the closing on a prayer house Al-Haramain bought in Springfield, Mo., for which Seda sent him $328,291.74.
Wilcox testified Seda had told him they paid a total of $461,541.74 for the prayer house.
September 02, 2010, Mail Tribune