Several dozen members of Seattle's large East African immigrant community packed a federal courtroom yesterday afternoon during a detention hearing for Abrehaile Haile, a Franklin High graduate accused of conspiring with two alleged Islamic extremists -- including one who was reportedly tortured at the behest of the FBI -- to wire large amounts of money to the Middle East.
A Muslim American, Fikre is the former youth basketball coach at Portland's Masjed-as-Saber mosque, the place of worship for seven Muslims from the Portland area charged in 2002 with trying to go to Afghanistan to fight with the Taliban in the wake of 9/11. He was the subject of a recent feature in Mother Jones magazine that detailed his "proxy detention" and alleged torture in United Arab Emirates. According to the report, Fikre was visiting family in Sudan in April 2010 when the FBI contacted him and offered to take him off the no-fly list if he agreed to become an informant. He turned down the deal.
A year after his meeting with the FBI, Fikre was detained while traveling in United Arab Emirates. Fikre claims he was repeatedly beaten and interrogated while in custody, with his captors barking questions that were "eerily similar to those posed to him not long before by FBI agents and other American officials who had requested a meeting with him." Fikre is now in Sweden, where he is seeking political asylum. Fikre's lawyers have released a video of him talking about his ordeal, and also written a letter to the Justice Department.Less than three weeks after Fikre went public with his torture claims, the conspiracy charges were filed against him, his brother, and Haile. Court documents say Fikre and his brother Woldehawariat, a San Diego taxi driver, first contacted Haile in April 2010, the same time Fikre was traveling in Sudan. Woldehawariat wanted help wiring $75,000 to Dubai, an amount large enough that he would have been obligated to explain the nature of the transaction to federal authorities. Haile allegedly advised Woldehawariat "divide the money into small amount and deposit it" into a bank account in order to skirt the reporting requirement.
The fact that Haile was involved in a wire transfer to East Africa comes as no surprise -- it's what he does for a living. In exchange for a small commission, his company helps immigrants send money to needy relatives back home in countries like Eritrea, Ethiopia, Somalia, and Sudan. Haile's landlord, Samson Stefanos, says the young first-generation immigrant was respected for his work.
"He's a very upstanding young person," says Stefanos, who also wrote a letter to the court on Haile's behalf. "Everybody knows him. It's a known business where people go by during holidays like Christmas and Easter and transfer money to relatives back home. Banks in those third-world countries just can't do those services. The logistics are difficult and there's a language barrier."
Haile came to the U.S. as a child, attended Franklin High School, and later graduated from Washington State University, where he studied finance and economics. Asked about Haile's relationship to Fikre and Woldehawariat, Seattle attorney Howard Phillips says his client "met one of the brothers some years ago." Phillips also notes that Haile is Coptic Christian, not Muslim.
"He provides a really legitimate, important service for the community," Phillips says of Haile. "[Wire transfers] are a major, major lifeline for families."
As for the charges, the attorney says Haile is only required by law to check his clients' identification and social security number. The charging documents, however, specifically state that Woldehawariat asked Haile to do the transfer "without identification or a social security number."
Haile was released on bond after his court appearance yesterday. He is scheduled to be arraigned in Southern California in the coming weeks.
Fikre is not currently in custody, but both he and his brother are also charged with failing to file a tax return in addition to the wire transfer charges. There are no allegations of terrorism associated with the charges.Abrehaile Haile Charges