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Last Updated: Thursday, 16 October, 2003, 07:20 GMT 08:20 UK
Interpal under the microscope
By Jeremy Scott-Joynt
BBC News Online business reporter

Ibrahim Hewitt is still fuming.

The charity he runs, Interpal - or the Palestinian Relief & Development Fund, to give it its full name - has been cleared of charges of backing terrorism.

But the original accusation levelled by the US against Interpal and four other European and Middle Eastern groups still sticks in his throat.

Interpal's website
If there's any point where we were doing anything illegal, would the police leave us wandering around?
Ibrahim Hewitt
"It's still a very serious thing hanging over us," he told BBC News Online. "This kind of thing smears people with the worst kind of accusation.

"It makes some think twice before giving."

Asset freeze

Interpal's troubles began on 22 August, when it was accused by the US Treasury of funding terrorism.

More specifically, the US said Interpal was funding the Palestinian extremist group Hamas. Not only was Interpal money underwriting Hamas's welfare activities such as healthcare, said the Treasury, it was backing violent attacks against Israeli civilians as well.

In the face of this, the UK Charity Commission had little choice, on 26 August, but to freeze its assets.

Interpal could still fund projects - but every expenditure, from plane tickets to postage stamps had to be approved by the Commission.

Under suspicion

Little more than a week later, the UK joined the rest of the European Union in shifting policy on Hamas itself.

Until then, European authorities had been careful to differentiate between Hamas' healthcare, its aid for poor families, its food programmes, and the fact that its leaders avow undying enmity to Israel while some of its membewrs are responsible for or carrying out suicide bombings and other attacks on Israeli civilians.

On 5 September, though, the policy changed.

Now all of Hamas was under suspicion - in line with the US assertion that there was no distinction within the organisation between funds for aid and funds for attacks.

Needless to say, the UK freeze was just what the US wanted to hear.

"We know not only that money from Interpal has ended up funding violence, but that Interpal has itself been responsible for channelling money to fund terror," one Treasury official told BBC News Online.


What was less welcome was the outcome of the investigation.

On 24 September, just five weeks later, the Commission gave Interpal a clean bill of health.

West Bank protesters waving a Palestinian flag
Interpal was accused of funding violence by Palestinian groups
"We have moved swiftly to reach a conclusion on this case because of the possible adverse impact of our actions on the charity's beneficiaries," said Simon Gillespie, the Charity Commission's director of operations.

Despite being asked, the US had failed to provide any evidence to back up its accusations, the Commission said in its report.

And one occasion where money from a banned charity, the Al-Aqsa Foundation, had found its way to Interpal was proved to be an entirely bona fide payment for humanitarian efforts, the report explained.

Commite de Bienfaisance et de Secours aux Palestiniens (CBSP), France.
Association de Secours Palestinien (ASP), Switzerland
Interpal, UK
Palestinian Association, Austria
Sanabil Association for Relief and Development, Lebanon
Source: US Treasury

"The Charity Commission demonstrated a degree of independence which these days is refreshing," Mr Hewitt said.

The news prompted David Aufhauser, the US Treasury's General Counsel, to tell a Senate Finance Committee hearings on terrorist finance that the administration was "disappointed" at the decision.

In private, officials are much more scathing.

Information - much of it derived from sensitive human sources - was provided to the UK authorities, if not directly to the Charity Commission, proving Interpal's involvement in "not only giving but co-ordinating" funding, Treasury officials said.

Lines of communication

The unspoken implication is that if it didn't make it to the Commission, that the fault lies in the UK - not in the US.

It remains unclear whether this imputation carries any weight, not least because the Charity Commission has stressed that it takes advice and evidence from the police and the security services in cases where such involvement is warranted.

Still, the suggestion has Ibrahim Hewitt seething.

He claims his charity has regular contact with Special Branch, the section of the police which deals with anti-terrorist issues, both at the local and national level.

"If there's any point where we were doing anything illegal," he said, "would they leave us wandering around?"

Looking out

Part of the problem, though, for charities such as Interpal - and, indeed, Muslim Aid, Islamic Relief and many of the other major fundraising NGOs - is that much of the money they raise is, in fact, spent by someone else.

Naturally, the charities concerned are at pains to stress that they check out who it is they do business with.

"If there's wrongdoing going on (in the organisations we work with), then it would be very difficult for us to police it because we can't operate there," he said.

"But we would want to know. We have signed agreements with all our partner organisations that give us the right to cancel everything and take legal action to recover funds if they do anything wrong."

But the fact remains, experts warn, that they are relying on overseas oversight which may not, in fact, be all that robust.

The litany of recent accusations levelled by the US against Saudi charities is a case in point.

Most investigators believe this is at the heart of the charity problem.

All too often, a charity offers the perfect cover for funnelling what are often quite small sums into the wrong hands - whether by the allocation and over-invoicing of local contracts which may be impossible to oversee, or simply by earmarking funds for projects which, in fact, simply do not exist.

And until oversight improves, the next Interpal row may be just around the corner.

Charities in terror fund spotlight
13 Oct 03  |  Business
Dirty money spotlight widens
02 Oct 03  |  Business
UK charity's assets frozen
28 Aug 03  |  Business
US freezes Hamas accounts
23 Aug 03  |  Middle East
UK and US freeze Islamic charity
30 May 03  |  Business

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