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Advocacy Action Center

Yes, we have no bananas

Dr. Laila Al-Marayati

Chiquita Brands International recently admitted to the Department of Justice that it paid a designated foreign terrorist organization to protect its banana crops. The Center for Defense Information, a leading provider of expert analysis on national and international security, credits Chiquita's partner, United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (known as the AUC, by its Spanish initials) for the largest number of extrajudicial killings and massacres in Columbia. As a consequence for doing business with terrorists, Chiquita received only a slap on the wrist and had to pay a fine. At first glance, this may appear to be a spoof, yet in reality it is a stark reflection of the charade of "equality under the law" which is prevalent in our nation today.

Chiquita, famous for its bananas, is still dispensing the delectable fruit. Its board of directors is not under indictment. Its employees still retain their jobs, pensions, health insurance, and other benefits without any fear of government reprisal—this despite the fact that they are employed by an organization that, according to the recent court decision, supports terrorism. In fact, the Department of Justice had full knowledge of the "criminal relationship" and simply advised Chiquita's Board of Directors to stop making "protection payments" to the terrorists in 2003, only to witness the payments continuing into 2004.

Chiquita's treatment during the US government's "war on terror" contrasts significantly with the treatment afforded six American Muslim charities that have been shut down as alleged supporters of terrorism. No money trail has been found that proves the relationship between those organizations and actual terrorists. Instead, these charities were shut down on the basis of questionable testimony from questionable informants, shoddy translations, and secret evidence that neither the accused nor their attorneys is allowed to view. When one of the charities produced evidence showing that the government's claims were false, the government moved to keep the evidence out of court.

One would assume that Chiquita's admission would warrant the more severe consequences. However, the government's treatment of American Muslim charitable organizations today is a far cry from the kid glove treatment afforded Chiquita Brands International. Evidently, a double standard is applied when dealing with Muslim charities in the US who, unlike other organizations, cannot expect to be treated fairly and with full equality under the law. In addition to freezing assets and designating the charities as supporters of terrorism, the government has arrested and indicted many of their leaders and has denied the employees their livelihoods.

No one from the over-reaching Justice Department approached the Muslim charities or their Board of Directors with questions or concerns about their activities, nor were they asked to stop whatever activities the government deemed unlawful. No, indeed. Rather, FBI agents broke into their offices and homes leaving a path of physical and psychological destruction. By cutting off badly needed aid to the beneficiaries around the world, the US government rendered countless children, women, and men once again desperate and hopeless under increasingly extreme circumstances.

Of course, Chiquita is not alone when it comes to breaking US laws and sponsorship of terrorism. Halliburton, which recently moved its headquarters to Dubai, has been under investigation since 2001 for doing business with Iran—a nation high on our government's list of state sponsors of terrorism. Unlike our government's "seize and freeze" shotgun approach so commonplace with Muslim charities, Halliburton was sent a toothless "inquiry" requesting "information with regard to compliance."

How can the government justify such a double standard? Muslims can only conclude that their charities are targeted simply for being Muslim and the government doesn't even feel compelled to prove its case. Rather it simply takes for granted the assumption that Muslim humanitarian giving, by definition, is involved in financing terrorism. The lack of transparency on the part of the government makes one question whether they have any reliable evidence to begin with. The fact that there hasn't been a single conviction of terrorism among the leaders of any of the closed American Muslim charities (in over 5 years) speaks for itself.

In a recent letter to the editor in the LA Times, Fernando Aguirre, CEO of Chiquita Brands International explained that they had no choice but to pay the AUC "to protect the lives of its employees." Some would argue that this is a form of negotiating with terrorists or paying them ransom, something the US government adamantly opposes. It seems that excuse satisfied the Justice Department who did not call on the Department of Treasury to freeze the assets of Chiquita as the USA PATRIOT Act would allow them to do while an investigation about terrorist financing was underway, regardless of an explanation as to how or why money got into the hands of terrorists.

Giving money to terrorists is always wrong. But it is not wrong to give individuals and organizations a chance to address any allegations in a transparent manner before draconian action is taken. All Americans expect our legal system to function under the principle that we are "innocent until proven guilty." That should apply to American Muslim charities as well.

Dr. Laila Al-Marayati is a physician and the Chairwoman of Kinder USA (Kids in Need of Development, Education, and Relief)