updated 5/11/2004 6:58:55 PM ET 2004-05-11T22:58:55

A judge on Tuesday threw out the guilty plea of an ice cream shop owner in Brooklyn whom prosecutors linked to funneling tens of thousands of dollars to al-Qaida and other terrorist networks.

Judge Charles P. Sifton said the Yemeni proprietor, Abad Elfgeeh, had not understood the consequences of his guilty plea to illegally transferring money to bank accounts in Yemen, Switzerland, Thailand and China.

FBI agents arrested Elfgeeh last year after learning that $20 million had passed through the bank accounts of his Brooklyn-based business from 1997 and 2003. He pleaded guilty in October.

Elfgeeh, a naturalized U.S. citizen, remained under house arrest.

“Nobody, but most importantly not Mr. Elfgeeh, was clearly advised (about) ... his rights to a jury trial with the prospect of facing the sentences that he now faces,” Sifton said.

Court filings portray Elfgeeh, 49, as a vital link in a system that moved millions of dollars to Osama bin Laden, al-Qaida and Hamas. Prosecutors also believe Elfgeeh was an associate of Sheik Mohammed Hasa Al-Moayad, a prominent Yemeni cleric charged with funneling millions to al-Qaida before the Sept. 11 attacks.

A pre-sentencing report by the U.S. Probation Department plays down any link to terrorism, saying federal agents assigned to the case had said “there appears to be little, if any, evidence to suggest that Elfgeeh had any role in financing terrorism or any knowledge that money he was transmitting was used to finance terrorism.”

Frank Hancock, Elfgeeh’s lawyer, added: “The only thing they have credible evidence for is the fact that he was operating a legal business that they say he needed a license for.”

Prosecutors said they would try to strike another plea bargain. But, Elfgeeh, who faced the possibility of more than 10 years in prison, said he refused to accept a deal that included jail time.

“I didn’t do anything wrong,” Elfgeeh said as he left a federal court in Brooklyn. “America is still good.... It’s still the best country in the world.”

In a letter requesting a 10-year sentence, prosecutors say Elfgeeh told a confidential informant that he had sent money to al-Moayad, who has pleaded innocent to charges and is being held without bail.

Records show al-Moayad had called Elfgeeh’s ice cream shop and kept its number in his phone book, prosecutors said. Before his extradition, Al-Moayad also told an FBI agent that Elfgeeh had helped him raise money in the United States.

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