Imam steals $120,000 from flockFormer president of Islamic Centre of Yellowknife stole from collection plate funds; money was being set aside to build mosque
Northern News Services
Published Friday, January 31, 2014
A former imam and president of the Islamic Centre of Yellowknife was convicted of major fraud and criminal breach of trust on Tuesday after stealing more than $120,000 from his flock in just under two years.
Mohamed Basha, former imam and president of the Islamic Centre of Yellowknife, is seen here in a Yellowknifer file photo. He has been convicted of major fraud and criminal breach of trust after he stole all but $60 of the Islamic centre's funds being set aside to build a mosque. - NNSL file photo
Mohamed Basha, 50, wept to a crowd of eight former congregants in the courthouse during a sentencing hearing in territorial court.
"I'm so sorry guys, I swear to God I don't mean to do it!" Basha cried as he turned to face the gallery.
Two men left during Basha's outburst. When Judge Christine Gagnon adjourned court to allow Basha to calm down, the rest of the men walked out of the courtroom, shaking their heads in silence as Basha wept at the defence table.
Basha was arrested for fraud and breach of trust charges in June in Toronto, where he was living with his family. He was then brought back to Yellowknife on a Canada-wide warrant by the RCMP. He pleaded guilty to the charges last November.
Crown prosecutor Ryan Carrier estimates Basha stole $120,316 from the 100-member-plus Islamic society between February 2011 and January 2013. The money was taken from two accounts: one fund to pay for upkeep of their makeshift mosque - an old daycare centre on Franklin Avenue - and another to raise money to build what would be Yellowknife's first mosque.
"No one was authorized to take money out of that account, except for the building of a mosque," Carrier told the court Tuesday.
It's estimated Basha took $74,256 from the mosque account.
"He took every penny ... or I shouldn't say every penny - there was $60 left in the account," said Carrier.
Basha took another $46,060 from the society's operations account, mostly withdrawing cash from bank machines. Carrier said the money from both accounts was donated by members of the society, much in the way a collection plate would be passed around a church.
Peter Harte, Basha's defence lawyer, said his client suffers from a gambling problem and was using the money he took to send to his ailing mother in Sudan. The court heard how Basha used an intermediary in the United States to forward the money to Sudan.
Carrier said there is no evidence Basha has a sick mother in Sudan.
In addition to the charges relating to the Islamic centre, Basha was convicted of major fraud after he took $15,000 from a young Muslim man looking for work in town.
Formerly a driver and board member of City Cab Ltd., Basha offered the man a position with the company, promising to buy him a used cab if he forwarded him $15,000.
City Cab confirmed Basha began driving for them in 2005, but was not an official employee. He briefly held a position on the board from late 2012 to early 2013.
"Basha convinced him. He swore as a Muslim he wouldn't touch the money unless he got the car," said Carrier.
The man told the court he trusted Basha as a prayer leader in the community. Basha travelled to Toronto, promising to return with a used cab for the man. He never returned and refused to pay back the money.
"This $15,000 is all that I have. Basha really broke my back," the man told the court Tuesday.
Two members of the Islamic centre prepared victim impact statements for Tuesday's proceedings.
"The trust of our religious community has been taken away and will take years to rebuild," one man said, reading his letter to the court.
Another man, who identified as an imam with the Islamic centre, said the fraud has caused strife in the Muslim community in Yellowknife, leading to much finger-pointing all around.
"One of the Muslim brothers called me a thief," he said.
"It's not possible to express in words the emotional toll. I'm breaking apart inside."
The victims spoke of young Muslims donating money from their piggy banks to pay for the new mosque.
"He stole all of it as he was preaching about the goodness of self-sacrifice," one man said.
Carrier reiterated the toll Basha's fraud has taken.
"There is going to be no mosque until more money is raised."
Carrier said he wants Basha behind bars for 32-34 months.
Harte said his client wants to pay the money back and said a penitentiary sentence would be a "hollow promise" to those whom Basha stole from. Although courts can order restitution payments, Harte questioned how those orders would be enforced. He added Basha can't make money while he's in prison.
"We need to get Mr. Basha back to work so he can pay off his debt," Harte said.
He proposed an 18-20 month jail sentence with a three-year probation order. During the probation, Harte said, Basha could be forced to find work and pay off his debt on a monthly basis.
Living in Toronto full-time with his wife and two teenaged children, Basha said he only came up to Yellowknife for work. He travelled back and forth often between the two cities.
Judge Christine Gagnon gave Basha a chance to address the court before she considered his sentence.
Basha explained he didn't mean to take the money and it was out of his control.
He turned, pointing to the men in court, promising he'd pay each of them back.
"I'm going to ask forgiveness from God."
"If it is the last day of my life, I will pay back," said Basha.
Gagnon said she needed more time to consider Basha's sentence and adjourned cher decision until today.
Basha was taken into custody by an RCMP officer after cthe hearing.