Defense opens in Seda trial

EUGENE — The attorneys for a man accused of using an Islamic charity to smuggle money to Muslim fighters in Chechnya opened his defense Friday with testimony from a rabbi and a Methodist pastor who said the accused rejected violent interpretations of Islam.

Pete Seda, also known as Pirouz Sedaghaty, is on trial in U.S. District Court on charges he and a fellow officer of the U.S. branch of the Al-Haramain Islamic Foundation smuggled $150,000 to Saudi Arabia in March 2000 in hopes the money would reach mujahedeen in Chechnya. Seda also is accused of filing false tax forms showing the money went to buy a prayer house in Springfield, Mo., to cover their tracks.

A rabbi and Methodist pastor from Ashland testified on Seda's behalf on Friday.

Rabbi David Zaslow said Seda would bring Jewish and Muslim children together to show them similarities between their two faiths. Seda, an arborist, helped Zaslow with a tree that was split and beyond repair.

"He looked at that tree and said it described Judaism and Islam," Zaslow said. "One tree that should not have been broken."

Caren Caldwell, a Methodist pastor, said Seda was the public voice of Islam in Ashland, and participated in the city's "peace community."

Asked by a defense attorney whether Seda ever expressed a "secret side, a dark side," Caldwell said that description didn't fit his personality.

Nabil Taha, a friend of Seda's who often prayed with him in Ashland, also said he found Seda's views to be moderate, particularly after the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

"If he were a bad boy, I'm sorry Pete, I would have reported him," said Taha, who lives in Medford.

A military expert, retired Army Col. W. Patrick Lang, also testified for the defense.

Lang said the larger Al-Haramain organization was likely under tight Saudi control, and said the Saudis wouldn't use a U.S. charity to route money to Islamic fighters in Chechnya.

"If the (Saudi) government wanted to fund the mujahedeen, they'd do it themselves," Lang said. "They would have no reason to send the funds through the charity."

Prosecutors questioned Lang's familiarity with the Chechen mujahedeen, and asked whether exhortations to violence against nonbelievers on the Al-Haramain website and on Seda's computer show that Seda was in fact a supporter of their causes and of a larger holy war.

"I don't think the possession of messages on your hard drive means anything more than that you have an interest," Lang said. "I think the fact that they let this on the website was a mistake."

Seda is not accused of terrorism. The U.S. Treasury Department in 2004 declared the foundation branch he ran was a terrorist organization for being part of the larger organization in Saudi Arabia, which was accused of funneling money to terrorists. The Ashland branch's assets were frozen and sold off.

Four years later, a federal judge ruled that the chapter's constitutional right to due process was violated because the Treasury Department never gave it a chance to refute the terrorist designation.

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