By Andrew Bushe
DUBLIN — The terror attacks on U.S. have reopened controversy surrounding Ireland’s granting of citizenship under the now-defunct “passports for sale” program to eight wealthy Saudi Arabians and three Pakistanis, with an opposition demand the 1990 deal be revoked.
Fine Gael Foreign Affairs spokesman Jim O’Keeffe said one of the 11, Sheik Khalid bin Mahfouz, was “an associate and supporter” of Osama bin Laden, the alleged mastermind behind the U.S. hijack assaults of Sept. 11.
“It now transpires Sheikh Mahfouz is a brother-in-law of Osama bin Laden,” O’Keeffe told the Dail.
“Shortly after citizenship was granted and passports given to him by the then Fianna Fail taoiseach [Charles Haughey] at a special luncheon in the Shelbourne Hotel, it became clear that Sheikh Mahfouz was wanted in America and elsewhere as a major international crook and swindler.
“The chickens have really come home to roost in that evidence has been produced that Sheikh Mahfouz has been a major financial backer of the international terrorist network headed by his brother-in-law, Osama bin Laden.
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“The evidence is that Mahfouz and the financial institutions, which he either owned or with which he was associated, channeled millions of dollars by way of payments directly to Osama bin Laden or to bin Laden’s front organizations, Islamic Relief and Blessed Relief.”
Minister for State at Justice Mary Wallace, replying on behalf of John O’Donoghue, said O’Keeffe’s call appeared to arise from “speculative reports in the media which are based simply on a family connection.”
If citizenship were to be revoked, the minister would have to contact the people concerned, giving the reasons. They could seek to have the matter referred to a committee of inquiry headed by a judge.
If the circumstances of any particular case warrant revocation, the minister would have no hesitation in doing so, she said.
Revelations about irregularities surrounding the Mahfouz passports were a factor in the resignation of former Foreign Minister Ray Burke. He had been justice minister when the passports were issued.
About _20 million was reputed to have been paid over by Mahfouz. The citizenship papers are understood to have been signed off by Burke in his home on a Saturday night and the passports handed over personally by Haughey.
A Department of Justice investigation found there were “errors and discrepancies” in the procedures and a significant part of the _20 million investment involved had not been traced.
O’Keeffe said that in three days the Mahfouz citizenship applications were completed, naturalization finalized and passports issued. They did not comply with residency requirements or produce evidence of good character.
The passports were discussed in the Dail as four men questioned in an investigation into international terrorism, were released without charge by gardai.
The four, three Libyans and an Algerian aged between 24 and 39, were questioned for about 40 hours under the Offenses Against the state Act.
Taoiseach Bertie Ahern said gardai had been monitoring a number of individuals for some time and had been paying closer attention to them since the Sept. 11 attacks.
“There is some evidence that perhaps some of these people might have links, or might have some kind of a relationship with some individuals who are being looked at in the United States,” he said.
“There is no evidence at this stage in my briefing to think that they have been involved in any way either through explosives or through documents or contacts but the Gardai are going through the investigations.”