Iraq domain owner convicted

Bayan Elashi and his four brothers face 10 years in US jail

The current owner of Iraq's .iq domain has been found guilty along with his four brothers, of illegally shipping computer parts from the US to Libya and Syria. Bayan, Basman, Ghassan, Hazim and Ihsan Elashi have yet to be sentenced but face 10 years apiece.

On top of this, all five of them will face a further trial in September for allegedly dealing in the property a "specially designated terrorist" - namely Mousa Abu Marzook, the ex-head of Hamas' political bureau and their cousin's husband, for which they could face a further 10-year sentence. With that also comes various counts of money laundering that have a 10 to 20-year sentence.

It is a stunning fall from grace for Bayan Elashi and his brothers, but a feather in the cap of the US government, which has used the Elashi case as a prime example of how it is dealing with the internal terrorist threat following the 2001 terrorist attacks.

All five brothers are Palestinian immigrants. Bayan moved to the US in 1977, at the age of 22, where he took a masters in computer science and started up an IT research company in California. He is credited with producing the world's first Arabic PC, and started another company before finally creating InfoCom Corporation in Texas in 1992. Five years later, he was awarded the managership of Iraq's .iq domain by Jon Postel in recognition of his skill.

InfoCom became a thriving telecoms company, with all five brothers on staff, and a $7m turnover. It hosted a large number of domains for customers in the Middle East as well as many major Muslim-American organisations, including the Council on American Islamic Relations, the Islamic Society of North America and the Islamic Association for Palestine.

But it was the connection between InfoCom and Islamic charity the Holy Land Foundation that first got the FBI interested. InfoCom and the Holy Land Foundation moved from different parts of the country to directly opposite one another in Richardson, Texas at the same time. Ghassan Elashi, InfoCom's head of sales, co-founded the foundation and was its board chairman. Bayan as president and CEO of InfoCom was also the technical contact for the Foundation's website - which was, of course, hosted by InfoCom.

The FBI suspected that the Holy Land Foundation was being used to filter money through to Middle East terrorists and so shut it down. After investigations, it then arrested the brothers on 18 December 2002 on charges of dealing illegally Mousa abu Marzook and illegally exporting computer equipment and technology to Libya and Syria - described by US officials as state sponsors of terrorism.

The documented export violations [pdf] stretch back to the mid-90s and showed how InfoCom illegally shipped computer parts to the two countries, often through a middleman in Malta. If based in the US, InfoCom needed a special export licence for both countries, which it did not apply for. The brothers subsequently lied on numerous shipments about their true value. They hoped that by hugely undervaluing the parts, they would evade the attention of the US authorities. However, the brothers were found innocent on numerous counts of making false statements.

The brothers' defence was that they had been conned by a Libyan businessman and knew nothing of the final destination of the goods. They did not knowingly break export laws and the goods were low-grade and did not pose a threat, their defence lawyers argued. The jury spent three days deliberating, and disagreed.

Nevertheless, the defence lawyers claim the Elashis were targeted because of their ethnicity and Muslim religion. Similar charges would have been punished by fines, not a criminal court case, they argued.

However, there is a very strong political bent to the whole case, with the Attorney General John Ashcroft and FBI director Robert Mueller both making personal statements over it. Mueller made an explicit connection between "9/11" and the arrests when they first happened in 2002.

Whether the Elashi brothers are dangerous terrorist funders or businessmen caught up in an over-zealous attempt by the US government to demonstrate results will become far clearer in the second case. The government alleges that Mousa abu Marzook put his significant financial interests in InfoCom in the name of his wife and the Elashi's cousins to avoid new financial laws put in place by the authorities regarding monies held by named terrorist groups.

However, the government alleges (see the full case here [pdf]) that Marzook had full control of his assets and the Elashis were in fact helping to protect those assets by concealing them within their company's accounts.

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