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Friends support arrested Muslim

Hatem Fariz, a Spring Hill man accused of raising money for terrorists, is a passionate supporter of the Palestinian cause _ but not of terrorism, according to his family's attorney in Chicago.

Yet, attorney Jim Fennerty said he fears the distinction is lost on the federal government that levied the charges and an American public that he says fails to grasp the subtleties of Middle Eastern politics.

Fennerty said he has been told that the Justice Department will present "roomfuls of evidence" that could take defense attorneys a year to sort through and cost millions of dollars to counter. But Fariz's defense will be simple.

"His defense is that he didn't do the things they said," Fennerty said.

Fariz faces charges that include racketeering and conspiring to commit murder. He was arrested Feb. 20 at his rental home on Farley Avenue, and the two Hernando County offices of Dr. Ayman Osman, where Fariz worked as an office manager, were raided by the FBI.

That same day, Attorney General John Ashcroft said Fariz, 30, helped University of South Florida professor Sami Al-Arian raise money for the Palestinian Islamic Jihad _ a group the government has declared a terrorist organization. The government believes the organization is responsible for the deaths of more than 100 people in Israel and its occupied territories.

The indictment says Fariz _ who left Chicago and was settled into his Spring Hill home by January 2002 _ was heard talking with other conspirators about raising money for terrorism, the inner workings of bomb plots and even "successful" terrorist operations.

Fariz's wife, Manal, has called the allegations are untrue. She and others sympathetic to Fariz contend that this case is an example of how the Justice Department has been unfairly targeting Muslims since Sept. 11, 2001.

"The Justice Department is not just," said Ayman Ramadan, a friend and relative by marriage to the Fariz family. "They say they are just, but they are not just."

Ramadan and Fennerty see some galling hypocrisy in the American government.

They say that while the United States is fixated on stopping pro-Palestinian terrorists from killing Jews with car bombs, it sends money and military hardware to a country _ Israel _ that shoots missiles into Palestinian neighborhoods and bullets at rock-throwing teenagers.

"People may react in ways that we don't think are proper," Fennerty said. "But if you go back and look at British documents, the American patriots were considered terrorists, too."

To Matt McDermott, Fariz was simply the leader of a W 63rd Street mosque and someone who calmed fears of an anti-Muslim backlash after the Sept. 11 attacks.

"Obviously, I can't say he's innocent or guilty," he said. "But I was surprised by it. Based on my interaction and my work with him, it seems out of character."