updated 8/20/2004 7:12:53 PM ET 2004-08-20T23:12:53

A senior political leader of the Palestinian militant group Hamas and two others have been indicted on racketeering conspiracy charges, accused of laundering money used to pay for attacks against Israel over 15 years, Attorney General John Ashcroft said Friday.

Authorities accused the three men of using bank accounts in Ohio, Mississippi, Virginia, Wisconsin and elsewhere to launder millions of dollars to support Hamas, which the U.S. government designated as a terrorist organization in 1995. Ashcroft said the three men operated a “U.S.-based terrorist-recruiting and financing cell.”

The indictment said the laundered money was used to pay for murders, kidnappings, assaults and passport fraud.

The federal indictment in Chicago, which was unsealed after two of the defendants were arrested overnight Thursday in Illinois and Virginia, was unusual because it treated Hamas as a traditional criminal enterprise as much as a terrorism organization. Authorities noted that at least three Americans in Israel were killed in bombings and shootings that were blamed on Hamas since 1994.

Fugitive blames U.S. politics
The defendants include Mousa Mohammed Abu Marzook, formerly chief and now deputy chief of the Hamas political bureau. Abu Marzook, who was expelled from the United States to Jordan in 1997, is believed to be living in Damascus, Syria, and is considered a fugitive, Ashcroft said at a news conference. The United States and Syria do not have an extradition treaty.

Speaking by telephone from Damascus, Abu Marzook denied the accusations, which he said were driven by election-year politics in the United States.

“This is election campaigning," Abu Marzook told The Associated Press. “They [U.S. officials] want to say to the American public that they are succeeding in fighting terrorism."

“Every week they come up with a new case before the American public, but these are drawn from files that are tens of years old,” he said.

Abu Marzook said he had “nothing to do with” the accusations. “Our organization [Hamas] is not a terrorist organization,” he said.

The two others named in the indictment — Muhammad Hamid Khalil Salah, 51, of Chicago and Abdelhaleem Hasan Abdelraziq Ashqar, 46, of Alexandria, Va. — were arrested Thursday night. Salah also was charged with providing material support for terrorism and obstruction of justice.

Salah was accused of recruiting and training new members of Hamas in the United States. After his release from prison in Israel in 1997, authorities said, he directed an associate in Chicago, who was not identified in the indictment, to scout potential targets for terrorist attacks in Israel in October 1999.

Salah pleaded not guilty during a hearing in Chicago. His lawyer, a public defender, asked permission for Salah to be released Monday for outpatient hernia surgery, but prosecutors objected. The magistrate left the decision to U.S. District Judge Amy St. Eve early next week. Salah’s next court appearance was set for Tuesday.

Ashqar, who previously had been offered immunity from prosecution, was already under house arrest on related charges of contempt and obstruction of justice.

“No justice in this country whatsoever,” Ashqar’s wife, Asmaa, said as she left her husband’s detention hearing Friday in federal court in Alexandria. A U.S. magistrate ordered Ashqar held pending his transfer to face the latest charges in Chicago, after a prosecutor said Hamas officials might help him flee the country.

“The defendant has associations at the highest level of Hamas,” Assistant U.S. Attorney David Laufman said. “It’s reasonable to believe his contacts could facilitate his flight.”

Ashqar’s lawyer, Tom Durkin, argued at the hearing that the latest indictment was related to a case that Ashqar had been fighting for more than a year, but U.S. Magistrate Judge Theresa C. Buchanan said the indictment included charges “so significantly different that I believe the whole ballgame has changed.”

Deep U.S. connections
Abu Marzook, 53, who was educated in the United States and holds a Ph.D. in industrial engineering, lived for 15 years, in Louisiana and Virginia. In 1995, he was detained by U.S. authorities on suspicion of involvement in terrorism. He was expelled to Jordan, which later sent him to Syria.

Ashcroft said a criminal case against Abu Marzook was impossible at the time of his expulsion from the United States because U.S. intelligence agencies were not permitted to share information they collected about terrorism suspects with criminal investigators. The USA Patriot Act, which was passed one month after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, allows such sharing.

It was the second major Hamas-related indictment announced by the Justice Department recently. Last month, a major U.S. Muslim charity and seven of its senior officers were charged with illegally funneling millions of dollars to support Hamas.

The 42-count indictment, which was unsealed in Dallas, alleges that the Holy Land Foundation for Relief and Development used its tax-exempt status to masquerade as a legitimate charity while most of its money was going to individuals and organizations linked to Hamas.

Ahmed al-Haj Ali, an adviser to Syria’s information minister, complained that Friday’s indictment was a prelude to the imposition of sanctions against his country. Ali also described it as a U.S. pre-election stunt by the government to divert attention from the war in Iraq toward Syria.

“America is in the middle of presidential election campaigns, and with the dilemma of its economic policies and wanting to shift the focus away from Iraq and Palestine, [Washington is] increasing the heat against Syria,” Ali told the AP.

© 2012 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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