Concerns about the freedom of association and the right to express unpopular points of view in organizational newsletters remain after conspiracy charges against three officers of a defunct Muslim charity, Care International, Inc., were dismissed in Boston on June 3. Two other convictions were upheld, including one against the former treasurer of the organization because he failed to report newsletters supporting “jihad” to the Internal Revenue Service (IRS).
Ruling from the bench, U.S. District Court Judge Dennis Saylor IV overturned three convictions for conspiracy to defraud the IRS by obtaining tax-exempt status in 1993 for Care International. The group ceased operations in 2003. Saylor said there was no proof of conspiracy when the group was created. The three leaders were convicted in January and have been in prison ever since. After the ruling, Samir Al-Monla was released, and sentencing for the other two defendants, Emadeddin Muntasser and Muhammed Mubayyid, is scheduled for June 12. Attorneys for both sides said they are considering appeals.
Prosecutors from the U.S. Attorney’s office admitted the group spent funds to assist widows, orphans, and disaster victims around the world but also said the group supported violent jihad. However, the defendants were not charged with material support of terrorism, and the judge said no evidence of use of charities to promote terrorism was produced during trial, despite the extremely broad claims made by prosecutors. The evidence of the alleged support was limited to statements in the group’s newsletter.
Failure to disclose the newsletter articles was one basis of Mubayyid’s conviction for filing a false tax statement in 2000, which was upheld. The prosecution’s theory that publication of such articles is a crime unless reported to the IRS raises fundamental free speech issues. Harvey Silvergate, attorney for Muntasser, told the Worcester Telegram, “There has never been a prosecution under this theory … absolutely every — not most every — application for tax-exempt status would potentially be the basis of a criminal charge…. Invariably you have to omit a huge amount of information or else have a 16,000 page application.” In addition, the right to hold and advocate unpopular points of view is clearly protected. The 1969 U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Brandenburg v. Ohio said, “Speech can only be curtailed when it is intended to and has the effect of causing imminent lawless conduct. Mere abstract advocacy of violence, however objectionable, may not be barred.” Muntasser’s conviction for making a false statement about a visit to Afghanistan was also upheld.
The prosecution also argued that the defendants failed to report that Care International was an outgrowth of the Al-Kifah Refugee Center, which media reports linked to the 1993 attack on the World Trade Center. The basis of the argument appears to be Muntasser’s past relationship to Al-Kifah, which he left after 1993. At trial, the defense argued that Al-Kifah was separate and that the defendants started Care to break away from it. News reports about the trial do not include information about evidence of control or a formal relationship between the two groups. More information may become available when the judge’s written order is filed, but for now, the “outgrowth” theory raises questions about freedom of association and whether nonprofits must report all past affiliations of their leaders and employees in order to avoid possible criminal prosecution.