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Seda plans return to U.S.

Former Ashland resident Pete Seda intends to return to the United States from the Middle East and fight federal charges that he's a tax cheat who helped an accused terrorist smuggle money out of the United States, his attorneys said Friday.

A federal grand jury Wednesday indicted Seda and Soliman Al-Buthe, his Saudi Arabian partner in the Ashland chapter of the Al-Haramain Islamic Foundation, with conspiring to transport &

36;150,000 out of the country illegally in 2000, then falsifying a tax return to hide the transaction.

The federal government has labeled Al-Buthe and the chapter as supporters of terrorism. Though Seda heads the chapter, he has not been labeled by the federal government as a terrorism supporter.

He's a man of peace, and he intends to come back and respond to these charges, Larry Matasar, Seda's Portland attorney, said Friday.

Matasar declined to discuss when Seda ' who friends say has lived in the United Arab Emirates studying Islam since 2003 ' would return or where he would attempt to enter the country.

— Lynne Bernabei, the Washington, D.C., lawyer representing Seda, Al-Buthe and Al-Haramain's Ashland chapter in the terrorist designation case, said she expects Seda to return soon and that he is familiar with the charges against him.

I think he's in pretty good spirits, considering how ridiculous this is, Bernabei said Friday. You know, Pete's a big-picture guy. To me, the idea of him committing tax fraud is preposterous.

With Pete, what you saw is what you got, she said.

Matasar said Seda wants to voluntarily return to the United States. But federal officials said Friday that might not be possible.

Federal arrest warrants were issued for Seda and Al-Buthe, whom authorities believe is not in the United States.

The warrants will be entered worldwide through Interpol, the International Criminal Police Organization, said First Assistant U.S. Attorney Barry Sheldahl in Portland.

Once the warrant is entered, Seda likely would be arrested if he left the UAE and attempted to enter a country with which the United States had an extradition agreement, Sheldahl said.

If he travels abroad, he'd immediately get apprehended, Sheldahl said.

The United States has no extradition agreement with the UAE, Sheldahl said.

However, Seda, who also uses the names Pirouz Sedaghaty and Abu Yunus, is a former Iranian refugee who fled to the United States in the 1970s and became a naturalized citizen.

Because of his citizenship, the UAE could voluntarily turn him over to U.S. authorities if found there, Sheldahl said. The United States has no authority to go to the UAE, find Seda and arrest him, Sheldahl said.

Seda also faces arrest if located in the United States, Sheldahl said.

Rabbi David Zaslow of Ashland, a longtime friend of Seda, said Friday that he doesn't believe Seda intentionally broke any laws.

Do I believe he could have been the innocent victim of a larger scheme? Could be, Zaslow said. Is he guilty of being naive? Could be. Is he guilty of playing with some dangerous characters in Saudi Arabia? Absolutely.

If he were on the phone, I'd say, 'Pete. If you have nothing to hide and are guilty of naivet?, come back and fight the charges,' Zaslow said.

Seda did not return e-mails seeking comment Friday.

The indictment was announced Thursday, one year after federal agents raided Seda's Highway 99 residence ' which also was Al-Haramain's headquarters in the United States ' as part of their investigation into the foundation's alleged ties to terrorism.

The indictment charges Seda and Al-Buthe and their chapter with conspiracy to defraud the United States, filing a false return for the tax-exempt foundation and illegally transporting more than &

36;10,000 out of the United States.

If convicted on the three charges, Seda could be sentenced to up to seven years in federal prison, while Al-Buthe faces up to 10 years in prison if convicted.

The indictment also seeks to have &

36;130,000 forfeited from the Ashland-based chapter to the United States.

The charges allege an Egyptian wired &

36;150,000 to Seda's foundation chapter in March 2000 to aid Muslim rebels fighting Russians in Chechnya.

Al-Buthe then traveled from Saudi Arabia to Ashland, documents allege. He and Seda had the Bank of America in Ashland transfer the money into 130 &

36;1,000 traveler's checks and a &

36;21,000 cashier's check made out to Al-Buthe, a government affidavit claims.

Seda allegedly told a bank employee the money was needed in small traveler's checks to help people who otherwise cannot cash a cashier's check, according to a federal affidavit.

Al-Buthe then carried the cashier's check ' which contained a hand-written notation reading Donations for Chichania Refugees on it ' and traveler's checks back to Saudi Arabia illegally, documents allege.

Federal law requires anyone carrying more than &

36;10,000 out of the country to report it to the federal government.

All of the traveler's checks were cashed by Al-Buthe on March 25, 2000, at a Saudi Arabian bank, and the &

36;21,000 cashier's check was deposited in what federal agents said appears to be Al-Buthe's personal account, a federal affidavit states.

The indictment alleges that Seda tried to hide the transaction from federal authorities by claiming in a document to the Internal Revenue Service that the &

36;150,000 went toward payment of a mosque in Missouri.

The Bush administration designated Al-Buthe and Al-Haramain's Ashland chapter as supporters of terrorism last September and their assets were frozen. The assets include Seda's former Ashland residence, whose title was held by Al-Haramain.

The indictment, however, makes no mention of terrorism or terrorist designations.

If the chapter is convicted on any of the charges, the government then could seek to forfeit frozen assets of up to &

36;150,000, Sheldahl said.

Bernabei said she has appealed the Department of Treasury's terror designations on Al-Buthe and the chapter. Bernabei said she was surprised the department has not labeled Seda as aiding terrorists because he headed the chapter, but we're glad they didn't.

Bernabei said she expects that case to end up in federal court.

There's no basis, from everything they've given to us, to indicate anything about terrorists, Bernabei said.

Matasar said he knows of no other criminal investigation involving Seda. He declined to comment on when he last spoke with Seda.

This is a big thing to swallow for someone, you can imagine, Matasar said.

Reach reporter Mark Freeman at 776-4470, or e-mail