Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, July/August 1998, Page 118
U.S. Government Moves to Seize Chicago Home of Mohammad Salah After His Conviction in Israel
By Raeed N. Tayeh
The federal government on June 9 moved to seize the assets of Mohammad Salah, including both his family’s home in the Chicago suburb of Bridgeview and the assets of the non-profit Quranic Literacy Institute (QLI), also in Chicago.
In a civil suit filed in federal court, the Justice Department accused Salah of being a top military leader of Hamas as well as the mastermind of an intricate money-laundering network that used QLI as a front for financing Hamas’ military operations within Palestine. The assets that the government has seized total about $1.4 million, including Salah’s home.
Salah resides with his wife, Aziza, who is pregnant, and their three children in a two-flat building. Aziza Salah also is named in the suit since she holds with her husband a joint bank account that was seized.
Mohammad Salah is a Palestinian-American who emigrated to the U.S. from Jordan in the early 1970s and earned a B.A. in electrical engineering in 1988. He made a good living as a used car salesman, but he also spent many hours serving the developing Muslim community in Chicago.
In January of 1993, while on a humanitarian mission to Palestine to distribute money collected by charitable organizations in the U.S. for victims of the Israeli occupation, Mohammad Salah and fellow Chicagoan Mohammad Girad were detained by the Israeli authorities for allegedly being members of the Islamic resistance movement, Hamas.
Girad was released after six months, but Salah was detained for nearly two years before his trial took place. When he was arrested, the Israelis found in his hotel room nearly $100,000, which they claimed was destined for the military wing of Hamas.
During his two years in pre-trial detention, Salah charges that he was tortured by Shin Bet interrogators, who are permitted by Israeli law to use such methods to coerce confessions. He finally signed a confession in Hebrew, a language that he does not know.
When the confession was presented to a military court, Salah immediately recanted, pointing out that he was forced to sign a document that he didn’t understand. Facing 12 years to life in an Israeli prison, however, Salah pleaded guilty to a lesser charge that carried a five-year sentence, including time served.
While he was in an Israeli jail, President Bill Clinton signed an Executive Order placing Salah on a U.S. government list of terrorists. Salah thus became the first American citizen in history to be placed on such a list. The U.S. government presented no evidence of its own to support the claim, nor did it give Salah an opportunity to defend himself. The U.S. action apparently was based solely on information provided by the Israeli government.
Mohammad Salah returned to Chicago in November 1997 after serving nearly five years in an Israeli prison. In Chicago he learned the government had frozen all of his assets, and that strict economic sanctions were placed on him and his family as a result of the new counter-terrorism law.
Those frozen assets are the ones that now have been seized by the government without a court order, and without any legal precedent in American jurisprudence. Salah’s lawyer is confident, however, that all seized assets will be reinstated, based upon the government’s inability to justify its actions.
Muslim community members were outraged, and the story soon drew major media attention in Chicago. As reporters arrived at the mosque of the mainly Muslim neighborhood where Salah lives looking for the community’s reaction to his ordeal, FBI agents also began making early morning and late evening appearances to interview community members. Some 30 complaints of FBI harassment or intimidation had been reported by June 17.
A coalition of Muslim, Arab, and Christian community leaders, The United Committee for Civil Rights (UCCR), was mobilized to deal with this situation. “This is an unprecedented case that could set a standard in the legal system if it is not fought sincerely and vigorously,” said Fadi Zanayed, an Arab-American activist and UCCR member.
In fact the government is using a law that it reserves for drug dealers and mob figures who are convicted of criminal offenses to confiscate any money that the offenders have after they are convicted in a court.
“The fact that the government has filed only civil and not criminal charges against Salah shows that their case is shoddy at best,” says Abdullah Salah, Mohammad Salah’s nephew. Abdullah adds that “in a civil trial, the government’s burden of proof is less than in a criminal trial, so basically whoever pleads the best case wins.”
Mohammad Salah contends that the evidence which the U.S. government claims to have is based solely on Israeli accusations and intelligence that weren’t even enough for the Israelis to convict him. “The evidence that they have on him is nothing more than forged documents that the Israelis have invented,” says Salah.
After Friday prayers on June 12th, worshippers at the Mosque Foundation in Bridgeview assembled for a rally to show support for Salah, his family, and QLI. Other Arab and Muslim Americans joined a two-block march from the mosque to the Salah home, where nearly 1,000 supporters gathered.
Chants of “Allahu Akbar” (God is Great) could be heard for blocks as the crowd responded to speakers at the rally who reiterated support for Salah and QLI.
“We are law-abiding Americans who have equal rights like everyone else,” said Osama Jammal, the president of the Mosque Foundation. “Politically motivated attacks on our community are an unfortunate reality that must not be accepted...the stereotyping of Muslims and Arabs as being terrorist is wrong and it must stop.”
Raeed N. Tayeh is an American-born journalism student and member of the Islamic Association for Palestine.