An Islamic group has settled a $1.35 million libel suit against one of its critics, who operates a Web site charging that the organization, the Council on American-Islamic Relations, has links to terrorism.
The terms of the settlement between the Muslim group and Andrew Whitehead of Virginia Beach, Va., are confidential, but the Web site, www.anti-cair-net.org, still includes the statements Cair contended were libelous.
"Nothing has changed in that regard. It's as if this lawsuit had never existed," said Mr. Whitehead, 48, a former Navy sailor.
An attorney for Mr. Whitehead, Reed Rubinstein, described the outcome as a victory for his client. "This is the first time somebody has stood up and stopped these folks," the lawyer said.
A spokesman for Cair, Ibrahim Hooper, confirmed that the libel case was dismissed earlier this month on the request of both parties. "It was settled out of court for an undisclosed amount," he said.
Asked if he was suggesting that Mr. Whitehead paid the organization to drop the case, Mr. Hooper said, "We filed the suit." Asked again, the spokesman simply repeated the statement.
An attorney for Cair, Jeremiah Denton III, declined to comment.
The group's lawsuit, filed in a Virginia state court in March 2004, accused Mr. Whitehead of libeling Cair by calling it "a terrorist supporting front organization that is partially funded by terrorists." The suit also charged that Mr. Whitehead falsely claimed Cair was founded by supporters of a Palestinian Arab terrorist group, Hamas, and that the organization favored the "overthrow of the United States Constitution" and the imposition of Islamic law, known as Shariah.
In June, Cair amended its suit against Mr. Whitehead, dropping its challenge to several of the statements, including the claim that the group was started by Hamas members and has received funds from terrorists.
Mr. Hooper said that despite the withdrawal of the suit, his organization, which describes itself as "a grassroots civil rights and advocacy group," still contends that Mr. Whitehead's assertions are false. "We've always denied them. We continue to deny them," the spokesman said.
Mr. Rubinstein said Cair's interest in settling the suit intensified late last year just as a judge was considering whether the group should be forced to disclose additional details about its inner workings, including its financing and its alleged ties to Hamas and other terrorist groups.
"It would have opened up Cair's finances and their relationships and their principles, their ideological motivations in a way they did not want to be made public," said Mr. Rubinstein, who represented Mr. Whitehead without charge.
Mr. Rubinstein charged that the lawsuit was one of a series of suits filed by Cair and other Muslim organizations as part of a concerted effort to intimidate their critics. "It's part of a larger pattern groups like this have followed. If you say something some of those Muslim groups don't like, they sue you even though the cases have no merit," the attorney said. "You change people's behavior simply by bringing the lawsuit."
"It looks like all they're really trying to do is stifle free speech," Mr. Whitehead said.
Mr. Rubinstein pointed to libel suits brought against several news outlets and journalists recently by the Islamic Society of Boston. The Islamic Society, which is seeking to build a new mosque on public land, alleged that the journalists and pro-Israel activists unfairly linked the religious group to terrorism.
Cair is pressing to revive a $2 million lawsuit it filed in 2003 against a former North Carolina congressman, Thomas Cass Ballenger, who asserted in a newspaper interview that the group was "the fund-raising arm of Hezbollah." He also said his wife was distressed by the presence of a Cair office near their home and by scenes of "hooded" women, wearing Islamic head coverings, going in and out of the office.
Last year, a federal judge in Washington, Richard Leon, ruled that Mr. Ballenger's comments fell within the scope of his employment as a congressman. The ruling made the federal government the defendant in the case and led to its dismissal.
Last week, Mr. Denton appeared before a federal appeals court panel to argue that the case should be reinstated.
Mr. Rubinstein said that after the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, Cair posted links on its Website leading visitors to make donations to two Islamic non-profit groups, the Holy Land Foundation for Relief and Development and the Global Relief Foundation. Both groups have had their assets frozen and seized by federal authorities over alleged ties to terrorism.
A man who was a co-founder of the Holy Land Foundation and of Cair's Texas chapter, Ghassan Elashi, was convicted in 2004 on six counts of illegal trade with Syria. The FBI has charged that he also has links to Hamas.
"These are bad guys," Mr. Rubinstein said.
Correction from March 27, 2006:
Reed Rubinstein is the correct spelling of the name of an attorney for Andrew Whitehead. The name was spelled incorrectly in an article on page 1 of the March 24–26 Sun.