A federal grand jury in Baltimore has indicted 39 people in an international money-laundering scheme using an informal currency transfer system known as hawala, the U.S. Justice Department said on Thursday.
The defendants and one business face charges including money laundering, conspiracy to bribe a public official and operating unlicensed money transmitting businesses, U.S. Attorney Rod Rosenstein said in a statement.
The indictments seek the forfeiture of more than $5 million and ownership interest in two Maryland convenience stores.
During the four-year investigation, authorities found evidence of four separate criminal schemes in the U.S., Spain, Canada and Belgium, the U.S. attorney said.
One indictment says that hawala money-transmitting businesses operated by defendant Saifullah Ranjha and others laundered millions of dollars that they believed were the proceeds of illegal activities such as drug dealing and that Ranjha also is accused of laundering money that he believed was destined for al Qaeda.
The so-called hawala is an unofficial system, widely used in Pakistan and the Middle East, that allows money to be exchanged between traders through a handshake, a piece of paper or on trust, according to Reuters.
A second indictment said Mohammad Gujjar conspired with 24 other defendants to pay bribes to a person they thought was a U.S. immigration official to obtain green cards.
The defendants face maximum sentences of 20 years for money laundering and conspiracy to launder money.