NEW YORK — A businessman originally from Pakistan has been charged with providing customers in the New York area with satellite broadcasts of a television station operated by the terrorist group Hezbollah.
The defendant's lawyer called the charges "completely ridiculous" and said yesterday he was unaware of another instance of someone being accused of violating U.S. laws by enabling people to obtain news outlets with a satellite dish.
Javed Iqbal, 42, who lives in Staten Island, was arrested Aug. 23 on charges that he helped people receive the broadcasts of al Manar, which was designated by the U.S. government last March as a global terrorist entity, U.S. Attorney Michael Garcia said. Prosecutors said it is a crime to conduct business with such an entity, Reuters reported yesterday.
No reports suggested that Iqbal had paid al Manar for its feeds.
According to Agence France-Presse, Iqbal was charged under the International Emergency Economic Powers Act.
Donna Lieberman, New York Civil Liberties Union executive director, issued a statement yesterday, saying: "It appears that the statute under which Mr. Iqbal is being prosecuted includes a first amendment exemption that prevents the government from punishing people for importing news communications."
She continued, "Such an exemption is constitutionally necessary, and the fact that the government is proceeding with the prosecution in spite of it raises serious questions about how free our marketplace of ideas is."
Al Manar, launched in 1991, features news programming that promotes Hezbollah's positions and shows statements from the terror group and speeches from its leader.
Iqbal was held on $250,000 bail, though he was expected to be freed as early as today once he posts his home as collateral, his lawyer Mustapha Ndanusa said.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Stephen A. Miller had asked that Iqbal be held without bail, suggesting more charges were imminent.
"The charge lurking in the background is material support for terrorism," Miller told Magistrate Judge Gabriel Gorenstein.
He said Iqbal was evasive as he talked to investigators on Aug. 23 and was a risk to flee because he has family in Pakistan.
The judge, though, said the government failed to prove he was a flight risk. He said he would require electronic monitoring once Iqbal was freed.
The charges against Iqbal were brought after FBI agents executed search warrants at two storefronts in Brooklyn where he worked and at his Staten Island residence, where multiple satellite dishes helped him distribute the broadcasts through a Brooklyn company called HDTV Limited, Garcia said.
Farhan Memon, who was assisting Ndanusa on the case, scoffed at the government's claims. He suggested it would be as if the governments of Iran or China banned major U.S. news stations, saying they were terrorist outlets. He said Americans would "be hopping up and down crying, 'Freedom of speech! Freedom of the press!'"
Memon said half of Iqbal's business was feeding programming from evangelical churches in Texas to his satellites for wider distribution.
Iqbal, who moved to the United States from Pakistan 24 years ago, was "very shocked by what happened to him," Ndanusa said.
"He hasn't done anything wrong," Ndanusa said. "He's a fun-loving guy, a very easygoing guy."
Ndanusa said his client once took in a homeless woman who needed temporary shelter and was known in his community as a generous man.
Iqbal could face up to five years in prison if convicted, though Miller said the maximum possible punishment would rise to 15 years if he was eventually charged and convicted of providing material support to a terrorist organization.
In court papers filed in U.S. District Court in Manhattan, investigator Charles Villani wrote that the probe began after a confidential source last February told law enforcement officers that Iqbal was selling al Manar broadcasts through a business in Brooklyn.
He said he had reason to believe that the two locations searched by federal agents contained evidence that would prove violations of laws banning anyone from providing support to a foreign terrorist organization.
Hezbollah was designated by the U.S. Department of State as a foreign terrorist organization in October 1997.
Villani noted in an affidavit that Hezbollah's stated mission is the destruction of Israel and the establishment of a fundamentalist Islamic state in Lebanon, and he cited several attacks the United States has blamed on the group, including the 1983 bombing of the U.S. Marine barracks in Lebanon, which killed 241 Marines.
He said Hezbollah owns and operates a media network including the Lebanese Media Group, the parent company of al Manar, a satellite television operation and al Nour, a radio operation.
Villani wrote that the television and radio stations are designed to increase support for Hezbollah's activities and mission.
"The instant investigation concerns both international and domestic terrorism due to the fact that it concerns activities, both inside the United States and abroad, done in concert with Hezbollah, al Manar and the Lebanese Media Group, all of which have been designated by the United States government as terrorist entities," he said.
Villani said Iqbal told law enforcement agents who interviewed him in May at John F. Kennedy International Airport on a return trip from Lebanon that he was a legal permanent resident of the United States with a passport from Pakistan.
Iqbal, who lives with his wife, three daughters and a son, said he had met with representatives of an Arabic television network in Beirut during his trip abroad but was unsuccessful at concluding any business deals, Villani said.