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Defense Denies Orlando Businessman Linked to Terrorist Groups

ORLANDO -- Federal authorities on Monday tried to link terrorist groups to a businessman dubbed by an FBI agent as ``the boss'' of Orlando's tourist district, but his defense attorney disputed any ties to illegal activities.

The federal bond hearing for Jesse Maali, 57, a Palestinian-American who owns T-shirt shops, gift shops and restaurants near area theme parks and hotels, focused more on his views on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict than it did on the immigration violation and conspiracy charges he was arrested on last week.

The bond hearing was to continue on Tuesday, when U.S. Magistrate David A. Baker was to decide whether to keep Maali locked up until trial.

``It's a difficult thing to have these kinds of accusations made against you,'' Mark NeJame, Maali's defense attorney, said after the hearing.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Cynthia Collazo, while questioning FBI Special Agent Stephen Thomas, said Maali, a naturalized U.S. citizen, should stay in jail because he was a flight risk with a Jordanian passport, held bank accounts abroad and had provided financial support to terrorist groups.

The prosecutor and FBI agent also suggested that poems and an essay Maali had written advocated suicide bombings in Israel and that the businessman, through a surrogate, had threatened a potential witness in a relative's drug case.

NeJame said the allegations are untrue.

Thomas, under oath, cited as evidence of Maali's support for terrorism a $50,000 check Maali sent in 2000 to the Society of Ina'ash El-Usra, a charity whose Web site says it provides food, clothing and medicine to families of political prisoners in Israel.

The check was deposited by the charity in the Al Aqsa Islamic Bank in Ramallah, which is an arm of Hamas, the terrorist group, Thomas said.

The bank has been placed on a federal list of foreign terrorist organizations with which U.S. citizens are prohibited from having business.

But NeJame said the charity is sanctioned by the United Nations and that the bank wasn't placed on a list of foreign terrorist organizations until 1½ years after Maali made the contribution.

``My client did nothing illegal by writing that check in 2000?'' NeJame asked Thomas.

``Not that I know of,'' Thomas conceded.

About 300 of Maali's family members and friends gathered outside the federal courthouse during the hearing.

Maali, his business partner and three employees were indicted on 53 counts of immigration violation, a count of conspiracy to commit money laundering and a count of conspiracy to commit violations of immigration laws last week.

They were accused of recruiting dozens of workers from Pakistan, India, Italy, Morocco and other countries to come to Orlando to work in T-shirt and gift shops, creating shell companies to hide payments to illegal workers, evading taxes and failing to pay overtime.

Maali's business partner, M. Saleem Khanani, was released Monday on $150,000 bond. The three employees, Khan Aslam, Saeedullah Awan and Mahmood Jamal, were each released on $100,000 bond.

Copyright © 2004, South Florida Sun-Sentinel
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