Siljander declares his innocence
Politics | Former congressman Mark Siljander, out of prison, says the two men who testified against him lied
by Emily Belz
Posted 11/04/13, 04:45 pm
After serving a year and a day in prison for lobbying for an Islamic organization with ties to terrorism, former congressman Mark Siljander was released at the beginning of this year. In a letter recently passed on to WORLD, Siljander declared his innocence, even though he pleaded guilty, and said two witnesses who implicated him had lied.
“Finally, the time has come to undo the gag of silence and answer the difficult questions about what took place in these past six years,” Siljander wrote in a letter he sent to friends. Siljander had previously declined to comment to WORLD about his guilty plea. The Republican representative from Michigan served in Congress from 1981 to 1987, when former President Ronald Reagan appointed him as the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations.
Siljander had ties to Sudan from his post-government work with Muslim leaders. In January 2004, the Senate Finance Committee added the Sudan-based Islamic American Relief Agency (IARA) to its list of global sponsors of terror. That year IARA agreed to pay Siljander $75,000, lobbying money which he said was payment for a book he was working on. Siljander was supposed to try to get the IARA off the Senate committee’s list, but the U.S. Treasury Department officially added the organization to its list of global sponsors of terror later that year. Treasury froze IARA’s assets and shuttered its American offices, based in Missouri.
The U.S. Justice Department said Siljander obstructed justice “by falsely claiming that the payments from IARA were charitable donations intended to assist him in writing a book about bridging the gap between Islam and Christianity.”
In 2010, Siljander pleaded guilty to obstruction of justice for lying to the FBI about his involvement with the organization and not registering as a foreign lobbyist (not to any charges related to the IARA’s sponsorship of terrorism). In January 2012, he was sentenced to a year and one day in prison. Four staff members at IARA were also sentenced.
Siljander, even though he pleaded guilty, said he was falsely accused.
“Two Muslim co-defendants, whom I had never met or even spoken to, were granted immunity from prison by testifying (falsely) I had lobbied for them,” he wrote. The two co-defendants Siljander is referring to are board member Ali Mohamed Bagegni and fundraiser Ahmad Mustafa, each sentenced to six months of probation. One problem with Siljander’s account is that IARA fundraiser Abdel Azim El-Siddig also said IARA had hired Siljander as a lobbyist in his guilty plea. El-Siddig was sentenced to two years probation. IARA Executive Director Mubarak Hamed also said in his plea the checks were lobbying payments for Siljander. Hamed was sentenced to four years and 10 months in prison without parole.
According to the Justice Department’s account released after the sentencing, Siljander, El-Siddig, and Hamed “agreed with each other to conceal Siljander’s efforts on IARA’s behalf.” IARA paid Siljander through separate nonprofits, including at least $25,000 funneled through the Fellowship. At the time of the payment the IARA was not on the Treasury’s list of terrorism sponsors, so no red flags would have come up in the Fellowship’s due diligence on the donor. The Fellowship board member who oversaw the transaction thought the money was payment for Siljander to work on his book, A Deadly Misunderstanding: A Congressman’s Quest to Bridge the Muslim-Christian Divide, which was published in 2008.
Now Siljander contends the $75,000 from IARA was for “more generally nonprofit peace work, research. There was some writing,” said his assistant, Amber Butler. “It wasn’t a lobbying payment. That’s what his answer would still be.”
In Siljander’s telling, when the IARA was added to the list of terrorism supporters, he was asked to testify against the organization. “I refused to give false testimony,” Siljander said, and then he was indicted. After the indictment, and the IARA’s addition to the list of terror sponsors, Siljander said he had no choice but to plead guilty because he could have faced a decade in prison if he had gone to trial.
“You can only imagine the inner turmoil of being placed in a position of having to parse the meaning of technical words in order to ‘confess’ to things I had not done,” Siljander said. “Nonetheless, my legal team, that included some of the best minds in the profession including a former U.S. attorney general, was unanimous in advising me to plead guilty. Not to do so risked too much.”
Siljander closes his defense by noting that he was diagnosed with cancer at the end of his prison stay, but is now in remission. He is taking speaking engagements.
Siljander’s letter to supporters
The last time my name was publicized, I was discredited for ties to terrorism, accepting a plea bargain and serving in prison. Could anything sound worse? Finally, the time has come to undo the gag of silence and answer the difficult questions about what took place in these past six years.
Throughout my 15 years in various levels of government, I tried to make the world safer by political means. This failed. However, these experiences led me to revelations that address the needs of a dominant issue in our time—bridging the growing divide among Christians, Muslims & Jews. Over time this work produced a model for peacemaking and problem solving in complex crises in places like Iraq, Libya and Sudan. These efforts gained traction for peacemaking with U.S. & world leaders; while my controversial book on the subject, A Deadly Misunderstanding, was being readied for a major release. My approach required working with both friends and enemies of our country.
Unfortunately, certain “interests” felt bridging the faiths and forging alternatives to war was a betrayal of my former associations. My success brought not accolades but disdain, and was perceived as a threat to justifying our expanding intelligence/eavesdropping apparatus and the trillions spent fighting the “War on Terror.”
To support this exciting peace and faith bridging work, we raised funds for travel, research and writing. One donor, a 25-year-old U.S. based, government approved Muslim charity, was recommended by one of my Muslim associates in the work. The charity’s principals were later indicted on grounds of supporting terrorists and misappropriating US government grant funds. Those opposed to my work seized this opportunity to discredit me by insisting I testify against the charity. I refused to give a false testimony and was consequently indicted on outlandish charges of money laundering & conspiracy. This exploded into a media frenzy tying me with terror funding, even though the judge reminded prosecutors that the case had nothing to do with terrorism or national security. After four years of exaggerated accusations, all major charges were dropped, leaving only obstruction of justice for claiming to the FBI that I had not lobbied for the Muslim charity and not registering as a lobbyist.
So why prison if I’m innocent? Two Muslim co-defendants, whom I had never met or even spoken to, were granted immunity from prison by testifying (falsely) I had lobbied for them. In a bizarre turn of events, weeks before my scheduled trial I fired my court appointed lawyer of 2.5 years for failing to file necessary motions on my behalf, thus placing the strength of my defense in jeopardy. Also in June of 2010, the Supreme Court issued an interpretation of the Patriot Act, which stated that simply advising “peace” to terrorist entities constituted "material support of terrorism." Prosecutors implied to my lawyer that if I refused to agree to their plea bargain and I won at trial, I would face indictment a second time in regard to my peacemaking “advice” in countries designated as terror nations. I would then face up to 15 years in prison and a $500,000 fine. Finally, on the eve of trial, the Muslim charity itself was added to a terror list. If I had gone to trial and lost, the prosecutors would have had the power to add a decade to my jail time. The Justice Dept. has a documented 98% conviction rate.
You can only imagine the inner turmoil of being placed in a position of having to parse the meaning of technical words in order to ‘confess’ to things I had not done. Nonetheless, my legal team, that included some of the best minds in the profession including a former US Attorney General, was unanimous in advising me to plead guilty. Not to do so risked too much.
Yes, I hated prison … but I am a better humbler man for experiencing the sorrow and degradation. Yet, I hope my actions will show that I hold no bitterness. At the end of my prison term I was diagnosed with an extremely rare and fatal cancerous tumor. Treatment included intensive radiation and radical surgery. I am delighted to report that I am gratefully cancer free, and free of all legal obligations regarding my case.
I am ready and energized to continue peacemaking and to speak about the life altering lessons drawn from my honored yet crushing journey. Today’s conflicts continue to weigh on my heart, spirit and mind. I have been happy to receive several invitations to speak in the last few months and am open to further engagements. Please feel free to contact Ms. Amber Butler firstname.lastname@example.org for speaking opportunities. I welcome your renewed participation as we continue on this journey.
Emily is a senior reporter for WORLD Magazine. She is a World Journalism Institute graduate and previously reported for the The New York Daily News, The Indianapolis Star, and Philanthropy magazine. Emily resides in New York City. Follow her on Twitter @emlybelz.