Those who know Hatem Fariz of Spring Hill say he's no terrorist. The Justice Department says otherwise.
By ROBERT KING, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times, published March 9, 2003
Hatem Fariz, the Spring Hill man accused of raising money for terrorists, is a passionate supporter of the Palestinian cause -- but not of terrorism, according to his family's attorney in Chicago.
Yet, attorney Jim Fennerty said he fears the distinction is lost on the federal government that levied the charges and an American public that fails to grasp the subtleties of Middle Eastern politics.
Fennerty said he has been told that the Justice Department will present "roomfuls of evidence" that could take defense attorneys a year to sort through and cost millions of dollars to counter. But Fariz's defense will be simple.
"His defense is that he didn't do the things they said," Fennerty said.
Fariz faces charges that include racketeering and conspiring to commit murder. He was arrested Feb. 20 at his rental home on Farley Avenue, and the two Hernando County offices of Dr. Ayman Osman, where Fariz worked as an office manager, were raided by the FBI.
That same day, Attorney General John Ashcroft said Fariz, 30, helped University of South Florida professor Sami Al-Arian raise money for the Palestinian Islamic Jihad -- a group the government has declared a terrorist organization. The government believes the organization is responsible for the deaths of more than 100 people in Israel and its occupied territories.
At a news conference, Ashcroft highlighted the case federal agents have made against eight defendants. But Fennerty says the key issue isn't the evidence the Justice Department claims to have, but what it produces in court.
Fennerty said the Justice Department -- which he refers to as the world's largest law firm -- showed its ability to overstate evidence in a recent case against Enaam Arnaout, the head of the Chicago-based Benevolence International Foundation.
Arnaout was initially charged with funneling charitable donations to al-Qaida, making his case one of the first post-Sept. 11 terrorism prosecutions. Eventually, the government let him plead guilty to one count of racketeering for sending donated money to rebels in Chechnya and Bosnia so they could buy tents, boots and supplies to secure his cooperation in investigations of his contacts in Afghanistan in the 1980s, during the early days of al-Qaida.
"How can you get a fair trial in this country when John Ashcroft points his finger at you and tells the world you are a terrorist?" Fennerty said. "You can't."
Also, the Justice Department says it has wiretap evidence to back up its case this time.
Its indictment says Fariz -- who left Chicago and was settled into his Spring Hill home by January 2002 -- was heard talking with other conspirators about raising money for terrorism, the inner workings of bomb plots and even "successful" terrorist operations.
The Justice Department said it tapped into several of Fariz's phone conversations last year. Here is a diary of what the government says it heard:
-- May 26: Fariz talks with the spiritual head of the Palestinian Islamic Jihad, Abd Al Aziz Awda, about the fact that Hamas -- another terrorist group -- was taking the groups' donations. He refers to having earlier sent $4,000.
-- June 5: On the day 17 people were killed and 45 wounded in a suicide bombing in Israel, Ghassan Zayed Ballut -- Fariz's friend and successor as leader of a Chicago mosque -- talks about the "successful" operation having killed 20 people and injured 50. Later, Fariz asks Al-Arian if he had heard about the bombing. He laughs when Al-Arian sarcastically suggests Fariz is upset or sad about the attack.
-- June 7: Fariz tells Ballut that "they" could not make the bomb that went off two days earlier without all the ingredients -- that someone's first cousin was to have made the bomb. Regarding the bomb makers, he states, "God protect them." Additionally, he talks about the bombers' past exploits and refers to a money transfer.
-- June 19: Ballut tells Fariz that Ballut's bank records are being examined by the government, a tidbit Fariz passes on to Al-Arian the same day.
-- Aug. 28: Ballut and Fariz talk about preparations in the event Al-Arian is arrested.
-- Sept. 5: Al-Arian calls and asks for Fariz's Social Security number for a "shipment." Fariz grants the request. Fariz tells Al-Arian he has spoken to "Abu Yousef" and hopes to cut him a check by the end of the day.
-- Sept. 6: Fariz talks about a donor list with Al-Arian, Sammeh Hammoudeh and an employee of the Islamic Academy of Florida in Tampa, the Muslim school Al-Arian founded and where Fariz's son is a student. Fariz warns Al-Arian to not hire a person who had worked at a Muslim charity in Bridgeview, Ill., because it might arouse government suspicions. He said the Bridgeview charity, Global Relief, was already under scrutiny. (Fariz is listed as the agent for another Bridgeview charity, the American Muslim Care Network.)
-- Sept. 13: Fariz speaks with Ballut about a payment made to a colleague who had complained it was less money than a year earlier. They discuss the death of three members of the Palestinian Islamic Jihad.
-- Sept. 24: Fariz talks with Fedaa Al-Najjar about her husband, Mazen Al-Najjar, and his association with terrorist organizations and the fact the government does not know the full extent of those ties.
-- Nov. 10: Fariz speaks again to Awda, who is outside the country, about raising and distributing money. Fariz worries about Awda's group being a security concern. He refuses to send Awda money via a bank account number. Fariz says he had begun making such transfers through a shell organization that has lain dormant for several years.
Fariz's wife, Manal, has called the allegations a "fabrication." Fariz has been represented in this case by a court-appointed federal public defender, who did not return phone calls for this story.
Fennerty, who plans to attend the next bond hearing in the case, said the sheer scope of the case would require millions of dollars and a team of lawyers to move to Florida for a year and camp out under the case. That alone will make it difficult for Fariz to clear his name, he said. "They throw enough s--- at the wall, and it sticks eventually," he said.
Fennerty's future role in Fariz's case has not been determined. But he and others sympathetic to Fariz contend that this case is an example of how the Justice Department has been unfairly targeting Muslims since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
"The Justice Department is not just," said Ayman Ramadan, a friend and relative by marriage to the Fariz family. "They say they are just, but they are not just."
While Ramadan and Fennerty said neither they nor Fariz condone attacks against civilians, they see some galling hypocrisy in the American government.
They say that while the United States is fixated on stopping pro-Palestinian terrorists from killing Jews with car bombs, it sends money and military hardware to a country -- Israel -- that shoots missiles into Palestinian neighborhoods and bullets at rock-throwing teenagers.
They contend that Israel, in its efforts to clear non-Jews from its borders, is trying to bully the outgunned Palestinians. "Just like a fish," said Ramadan. "The big fish eat the small fish."
Fennerty, who has traveled extensively in Israel, said there are 9-year-old Palestinian boys there who -- in the atmosphere of Israeli dominance -- feel there is nothing to live for.
"People may react in ways that we don't think are proper," Fennerty said. "But if you go back and look at British documents, the American patriots were considered terrorists, too."
Fariz, born in Puerto Rico and an American citizen, has Palestinian parents.
Though Fariz was little known in Spring Hill, his arrest -- and that of fellow Chicagoan Ghassan Zayed Ballut -- caused quite a stir in Chicago, even a year after he had left.
The Chicago Independent Media Center said Fariz and Ballut are "widely respected in Chicago for their measured, principled support for justice for the Palestinians." It trumpeted a support rally being staged on their behalf -- three days after the arrests -- that was organized by the mosque both men had led.
The Chicago Tribune said Fariz was known in Chicago's Muslim community for his Arabic radio talk show.
To Matt McDermott, Fariz was simply the leader of a W 63rd Street mosque and someone who had done some nice things to calm fears of an anti-Muslim backlash after the Sept. 11 attacks.
McDermott led a civic coalition of churches, schools, hospitals and nonprofit groups in the neighborhood. And he said Fariz organized a human chain around the mosque as a symbol of unity.
"Surprised and saddened" by the arrests, McDermott said the Hatem Fariz described in the government's terrorism case is not the Hatem Fariz he knew.
"Obviously, I can't say he's innocent or guilty. I have no idea," McDermott said. "But I was surprised by it. Based on my interaction and my work with him, it seems out of character."
-- Robert King covers Spring Hill and can be reached at 848-1432. Send e-mail to email@example.com .