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Terror link assertions dismissed as bail is set

Bail was set at $10-million Tuesday for a Palestinian-American millionaire after a federal magistrate dismissed FBI concerns that he has terrorist ties.

Jesse Maali, who heads an Orlando tourist shop and restaurant empire, must wear an electronic monitoring device and remain in Central Florida until his trial on immigration violation and conspiracy charges, U.S. Magistrate David Baker ruled after a two-day hearing.

Maali's defense attorney said his client probably would not be able to post bail before today.

Maali, 57, has denied supporting terrorist groups, and his attorney has described the government's allegations as contributing to anti-Arab "hysteria."

The federal magistrate discounted claims by federal authorities that Maali financially supported terrorist groups when he made donations to Palestinian charities and that an essay and poems he had written indicated a sympathy for suicide bombers in Israel.

"There is a very great danger in taking . . . connections and associations that can be used with a very broad brush," Baker said. "Simply because someone knows someone, meets someone or shares characteristics, that doesn't make them responsible for everyone's actions."

Assistant U.S. Attorney Cynthia Collazo argued that Maali would be a flight risk because he has money and property in Jordan. She also said Maali's relatives had threatened the life of a government witness helping authorities build their case.

But Baker said Maali's ties to the community counter any perceived flight risk. He disregarded the government's argument that Maali was a threat to the witness.

"The evidence has been neither clear nor convincing that Mr. Maali poses a threat," Baker said.

Maali's attorney, Mark NeJame, called the FBI's allegations outrageous and praised Baker's decision as courageous. He said Maali would be committing economic suicide if he supported terrorism because it hurts tourism, which he depends on for his livelihood.

"This is a dangerous time in that the government has attempted to play on hysteria, . . . on headlines that say we may be in a war with Iraq or that Osama bin Laden may still be alive," NeJame told Baker. "The suggestions made by the American government against this American (are) frightening."

Before Baker's ruling, an Arab-American community leader testified that the accusations that Maali supports terrorist groups are "laughable."

Maali has generously supported Palestinian and U.S. charities. But he has never donated to groups linked to Hamas, al-Qaida or other terrorist organizations, as federal authorities assert, said Sami Qubty, president of Orlando's Arab American Community Center.

"It's a laughable accusation. It's a stupid accusation," Qubty said during the second day of Maali's bail hearing.

Maali, his business partner and three employees were indicted last week on 53 counts of violating immigration laws, a count of conspiracy to commit money laundering and a count of conspiracy to violate immigration laws.

They are accused of recruiting dozens of workers from Africa, Asia and Europe to come to Orlando to work in T-shirt and gift shops, creating shell companies to hide payments to illegal workers, evading taxes and failing to pay overtime.

No charges accusing them of having terrorist ties were filed.