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Last Updated: Thursday, 2 December, 2004, 10:55 GMT
US family sues 'Hamas-linked' charities
By Catherine Miller
BBC News, Chicago

This week, a piece of the Arab-Israeli conflict is being transferred from the dusty streets of the West Bank to the chilly winds and sleek skyscrapers of downtown Chicago.

Hamas gunman in Jabaliya refugee camp, Gaza
The Boim family accuse Chicago charities of links with Hamas
The family of David Boim, an American teenager shot dead by Hamas at a West Bank bus stop in 1996, is suing a group of Chicago-based organisations who they say helped fund Hamas operations.

It will be the first courtroom test of a piece of federal anti-terror legislation passed in the early 1990s, which supporters say helps strike a blow at terror support networks.

But the case has also raised concerns for the Muslim community about where support for militants ends and guilt by association begins.

'Anti-terror tool'

"This federal statute is designed to provide Americans who are injured by international terrorism a right to sue in American courts the people who are responsible - and it reaches beyond just those who pull the trigger or carry the bomb," said Rick Hoffman, an attorney for the Boim family.

"We just happen to be the first to pursue this, but hopefully this is a tool that others will be able to follow as well to cut off the funding of these sorts of terrorist attacks."

US flag flying amidst Chicago skyscrapers
The lawsuit is being fought a world away from where Boim was killed
The family is seeking damages of $600m (310m). But even if the jury awards such a vast sum, neither the family nor the lawyers may see that money because many of the organisations' assets have already been the subject of separate, government actions.

Nonetheless, according to Jewish leaders the Boim case is a positive precedent for Chicago's Jewish community, which has long harboured concerns about local Islamic charitable organisations acting as conduits for funding militants.

"This is an uphill struggle against international terrorism, and the forces of good who fight fairly now have a law in their defence that gets a measure of justice against the known supporters of terrorism," says Jay Tcath, director of the Jewish Community Relations Council.

But others are concerned that the effects of the law may not be so clear cut.

"You need to come up with a legal principle that draws the line between punishing those who support terrorism without punishing those who make honest humanitarian contributions - and that's not an easy line to draw," says Doug Cassel, head of the International Human Rights Center at Northwestern Law School.

Mr Cassel says it is important to protect freedom of association and freedom of expression.

He says charitable groups that fund organisations abroad should not necessarily be "held to a standard of strict liability for any crime that might be committed by some member of that group overseas".

Institute under scrutiny

One of the defendants in the case is the Quranic Literacy Institute.

In the basement of an unremarkable suburban house in south-west Chicago, it has built up a vast library of Arabic texts to support its 12-year project to write a new English translation of the Koran.

How do I live in the land that I thought was the land of democracy, what do we do, how do we worship and where do we go from here?
Seema Imam,
Muslim Civil Rights Center
The Boims accuse the Institute of knowingly providing cover to a man alleged to be a key Hamas figure in the United States.

But the group's secretary, Amer Haleem, says the Institute has been "dragged into" the case for other reasons: "guilt by association and religious persecution.

"There's absolutely no connection between us and any terrorist organisation. They're depending on the fact that any Muslim can be accused of anything now and the American people will say 'By and large, well, it must be true'."

There are around 400,000 Muslims in the greater Chicago area, around a quarter of Palestinian origin. Mosques, cafes and halal butchers are dotted among the sprawling strip malls and highways of the suburbs.

"Every community now feels tainted by this broad brush stroke. Every mosque, every centre, every book publisher is now suffering [a drop in] what is being given to their organisation," says Seema Imam of the Muslim Civil Rights Center.

The Boim case, she says, undermines philanthropy, which is a pillar of the Muslim religion, and has a devastating effect on individuals and the community.

"There's an extensive amount of fear among Muslim[s]. The conversation is of confusion - how do I live in the land that I thought was the land of democracy, what do we do, how do we worship and where do we go from here?"

For the family of David Boim, this week may finally bring an end to their long search for legal reparation for a past tragedy.

But it will be many years before its clear how the legacy of his death will affect the future of America's Muslims.




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