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Charity’s libel suit targets former Bush official

Times Staff Writer

A former Bush administration official has been sued for libel by a U.S.-based Islamic charity for alleging in a book that the organization has helped fund Middle East terrorists.

The lawsuit -- filed in Los Angeles County Superior Court by Kids in Need of Development, Education and Relief and its chairwoman, Dr. Laila Al-Marayati of Los Angeles -- accuses Matthew Levitt of falsely linking the charity to extremists. It also names Yale University Press and the Washington Institute for Near East Policy as defendants for their role in publishing the book last year.

Levitt, deputy assistant secretary for intelligence and analysis at the U.S. Treasury Department until earlier this year, has been a government witness in several federal terrorism cases and is a senior fellow at the institute.

Spokespeople for the defendants said the allegations were without merit.

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The Dallas-based charity, known as KinderUSA, was founded five years ago by a group of physicians and humanitarian relief workers with the goal of bringing educational, health and rehabilitation programs into war zones and areas of disaster, according to its lawsuit and website. To date, it has received and distributed about $4 million to $5 million overseas.

The lawsuit, filed April 26, contends that Levitt’s book, “Hamas: Politics, Charity and Terrorism in the Service of Jihad,” inaccurately portrays the organization as an accomplice to terrorism, suggesting that it has funded Hamas and has connections to Al Qaeda.

In one passage cited in the lawsuit, Levitt links KinderUSA to another Texas-based charity, the Holy Land Foundation for Relief and Development, which has been closed by the federal government and is now fighting government allegations in Dallas that it is connected to Hamas.

“Even after the closure of the Holy Land Foundation in 2001, other U.S.-based charities continue to fund Hamas,” the book says. “One organization that has appeared to rise out of the ashes of the [Holy Land Foundation] is KinderUSA.”

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In court documents, Levitt has been listed as a potential government witness in the Holy Land trial, which is to begin in July.

Levitt’s book also states -- falsely, the lawsuit alleges -- that “the formation of KinderUSA highlights an increasingly common trend: banned charities continuing to operate by incorporating under new names in response to designation as terrorist entities or in an effort to evade attention. This trend is also seen with groups raising money for Al Qaeda.”

Al-Marayati could not be reached for comment. Her attorney alleged that Levitt’s book makes “spurious and unsubstantiated” suggestions that the charity funds terrorism.

Attorney John P. Kilroy said KinderUSA not only has been designated as a lawful charity by the IRS but has twice been a guest of the Treasury Department’s counter-terrorism unit to participate in conferences. He also noted that Al-Marayati has been honored by the government for her work on an international health panel.

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“This [book] is all part of the witch hunt against Muslim charities in this country ... where all Muslim charities that do international work are considered suspect,” Kilroy said.

A spokeswoman for Levitt and the Washington institute called the lawsuit “meritless” and expressed confidence that the accusations of libel would be dismissed.

“The book was carefully researched and addresses matters of critical importance to this country,” Alicia Gansz, director of communications for the institute, said in a statement.

“We are deeply concerned about the chilling effect lawsuits like this may have on other scholars who are researching similar topics, and we hope that by prevailing in litigation, we will help to create an environment more conducive to an open and honest discussion about topics of current interest,” she said.

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In a letter last November, Yale University wrote to the charity’s attorney and said it had not been involved in fact-checking Levitt’s book but had spoken to him and had been assured the statements made in the book could be substantiated.

On Friday, responding to the suit, Yale University spokesman Tom Conroy said all books it publishes are vetted through a peer review program.

“We rely on our authors to accurately present material submitted for publication,” Conroy said, adding that Levitt and the Washington institute have offered assurances that their material is accurate.

KinderUSA’s attorney, however, alleged that inaccuracies in the book have damaged the charity’s work. “KinderUSA cannot let unsubstantiated charges like those in Levitt’s book stand without being challenged,” Kilroy said.

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The lawsuit seeks an injunction to halt the book’s distribution and $500,000 in punitive damages. “Anything less would not be sufficient to penalize this reckless journalism, this reckless scholarship,” Kilroy said.

greg.krikorian@latimes.com


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