Five Convicted in Terrorism Financing Trial
DALLAS — On their second try, federal prosecutors won sweeping convictions Monday against five leaders of a Muslim charity in a retrial of the largest terrorism-financing case in the United States since the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
The five defendants, all leaders of the Holy Land Foundation for Relief and Development, based in Richardson, a Dallas suburb, were convicted on all 108 criminal counts against them, including support of terrorism, money laundering and tax fraud. The group was accused of funneling millions of dollars to the Palestinian militant group Hamas, an Islamist organization the government declared to be a terrorist group in 1995.
Five officials of the now defunct Holy Land Foundation, once the biggest Muslim charity in the US, have been convicted of sending financial aid to Palestinian charities allegedly controlled by Hamas, listed by the US government as a terror group.
Al Jazeera‘s Tom Ackerman reports from Dallas, Texas, where the trial featured secret Israeli witnesses and drew accusations from the foundation’s defenders that the government selectively prosecuted the charity.
“Money is the lifeblood of terrorism,” Richard B. Roper, the United States attorney whose office prosecuted the case, said Monday in a statement. “The jury’s decision demonstrates that U.S. citizens will not tolerate those who provide financial support to terrorist organizations.”
The defendants argued that the Holy Land Foundation, once the largest Muslim charity in the United States, was engaged in legitimate humanitarian aid for community welfare programs and Palestinian orphans.
The jury, which deliberated for eight days, reached a starkly different result than the jury in the first trial, which ended in a mistrial on most charges in October 2007, after nearly two months of testimony and 19 days of deliberations.
The government shuttered the Holy Land Foundation in December 2001 and seized its assets, a move President Bush heralded at the time as “another step in the war on terrorism.”
The charity’s leaders — Ghassan Elashi, Shukri Abu-Baker, Mufid Abdulqader, Abdulrahman Odeh and Mohammad El-Mezain — were not accused in the 2004 indictment of directly financing suicide bombings or terrorist violence. Instead, they accused of illegally contributing to Hamas after the United States designated it a terrorist group.
The defendants could be sentenced to 15 years on each count of supporting a terrorist group, and 20 years on each count of money laundering. Leaders of the foundation, which is now defunct, might also have to forfeit millions of dollars.
Khalil Meek, a longtime spokesman for a coalition of Holy Land Foundation supporters called Hungry for Justice, which includes national Muslim and civil rights groups, said supporters were “devastated” by the verdict.
“We respect the jury’s decision, but we disagree and we think the defendants are completely innocent,” Mr. Meek said. “For the last two years we’ve watched this trial unfold, and we have yet to see any evidence of a criminal act introduced to a jury. This jury found that humanitarian aid is a crime.”
He added, “We intend to appeal the verdict, and we remain convinced that we will win.”
The prosecutor, Barry Jonas, told jurors in closing arguments last week that they should not be deceived by the foundation’s cover of humanitarian work, describing the charities it financed as terrorist recruitment centers that were part of a “womb to the tomb” cycle.
It was a major victory in the White House’s legal “war on terror” and comes after a mistrial was declared last year in the case involving the now defunct Texas-based Holy Land Foundation, charged with funneling 12 million dollars to Hamas.
“Today’s verdicts are important milestones in America’s efforts against financiers of terrorism,” Patrick Rowan, assistant attorney general for national security, said in a statement.
“This prosecution demonstrates our resolve to ensure that humanitarian relief efforts are not used as a mechanism to disguise and enable support for terrorist groups.”
Holy Land was one of several Muslim organizations the Bush administration closed in the wake of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks for allegedly raising money for overseas Islamic extremists.
Muslim charities that remain open have reported significant drops in contributions because of fears of prosecution even as juries deadlocked or rendered acquittals or convictions of lesser charges in two other high-profile terror financing cases in Florida and Chicago.
The United States Justice Department vowed in October 2007 to retry the five former charity organizers in the Holy Land case after jurors could not agree on verdicts on nearly 200 charges and a new jury was seated in mid-September.
Over the past two months, the government has presented largely the same evidence hoping to prove that Holy Land was created in the late 1980s to gather donations from deep-pocketed American Muslims to support the then-newly formed Hamas movement resisting the Israeli occupation.
Defense attorneys said the charity was a non-political organization which operated legally to get much-needed aid to Palestinians living in squalor under the Israeli occupation and argued that the chief reasons their clients were on trial are family ties.
After reading the verdicts, U.S. District Judge Jorge Solis ordered the men detained because of fears they would flee the country before sentencing given their international ties.
Khaled Meshaal, Hamas’ political leader in Syria, is the brother of defendant Mufid Abdulqader, a top Holy Land fundraiser whose Palestinian band played at the charity’s events and now faces up to 55 years in jail.
Meshaal’s deputy, Mousa Abu Marzook, is a cousin of defendant Mohammad el-Mezain, a foundation co-founder, and is married to the cousin of defendant Ghassan Elashi, former Holy Land board chairman.
Mezain faces up to 15 years in prison while Elashi, who is already serving six and a half years for export law violations, faces up to life in prison.
The brother of defendant Shukri Abu Baker, Holy Land’s former chief executive officer, is Jamal Issa, former Hamas leader in Sudan and its current head in Yemen. Baker, the former chief executive officer of Holy Land, faces up to life in prison.
A fifth defendant is Abdulrahman Odeh, Holy Land’s New Jersey representative, who faces up to 55 years in jail.
Jurors also found that the defendants owed the government 12.4 million dollars.
Holy Land investigation dates back to 1993
The Holy Land Foundation first came to the attention of U.S. authorities 15 years ago, when an Illinois man detained in Israel told his interrogators that the largest American Muslim charity was really a front for Palestinian terrorists.
The year was 1993, and Holy Land, started a few years earlier as the Occupied Land Fund, had just relocated from California to Richardson.
Holy Land’s founders, all of whom were either born in the Palestinian territories or spent time there growing up, made it their mission to help poor and war-stricken Palestinian families devastated by the Arab-Israeli conflict.
Or that’s what was printed on their pamphlets.
Muhammad Salah, a Palestinian-born Illinois businessman, described the charity differently.
Although he would later claim he was tortured into talking, he told Israeli agents in 1993 that Holy Land was the chief fundraising arm of the then-6-year-old Islamic Resistance Movement, better known as Hamas — which sponsored suicide bombings targeting Israelis in protest of their occupation of Palestine.
He said Holy Land was so designated by a powerful and politically savvy Palestinian immigrant living in the U.S. named Mousa Abu Marzook.
Investigators would later learn that Mr. Marzook, a doctoral student at Louisiana Tech University, was actually the head of Hamas and helped start Holy Land with hundreds of thousands of dollars in seed money. He also was married to a cousin of Ghassan Elashi, Holy Land’s board chairman and one of its founders.
Holy Land supporters accuse government of preying on fear
The verdicts came down slowly and cast a pall over an already somber courtroom. “Guilty” was heard over and over again.
Most family members and friends of the five defendants in the Holy Land Foundation terrorism financing trial remained stoic Monday as justice was meted out, but one person sobbed: “My dad is not a criminal. He’s a human!”
For the roughly 150 supporters at the Earle Cabell Federal Building in downtown Dallas, that may best summarize their take on the outcome of one of the nation’s biggest and most important terrorism financing trials.
Supporters say the government’s case was built on fear-mongering, and they stand by long-held assertions that Holy Land was a legitimate charity concerned only with providing relief to Palestinians living in poverty and hardship under the decades-long Israeli occupation.
Some supporters cried quietly after the verdicts were read. Some looked in shock, disbelief registering on their faces. Tension filled the air.
As people began to quietly file out of the courtroom, many supporters shouted words of encouragement to the defendants. Some of the defendants defiantly flashed victory signs.
Defense attorneys did not talk to The Dallas Morning News, but are already discussing appeals.
John Wolf, a friend and member of the Hungry for Justice coalition, said he’d known the defendants for 12 years.
“I’m not surprised,” he said of the verdicts. “I think the government had their do-over and they learned from their mistakes. It’s hard to accept because I don’t believe the gentlemen are guilty. These guys are the sweetest, clean-hearted people.”
During the trial, defense attorneys accused the government of bending to Israeli pressure to prosecute the charity, and of relying on old evidence. But jurors agreed with the government’s contention that at least $12 million raised in the U.S. had been illegally funneled to Hamas after that organization was banned as a terrorist group by the federal government in 1995.
Some supporters have said that the defendants, even if convicted, would be considered freedom fighters or folk heroes.
Peter Margulies, a Roger Williams University law professor who studies terrorism financing cases, said the government has won the case, but has work to do for American Muslims.
“Going forward … the government must be more pro-active about furnishing guidance to Muslim-Americans who merely wish to fulfill their religious obligations,” he said.
That may be too little, too late for some.
Mohammed Wafa Yaish, Holy Land’s former accountant and a witness of the trial, said after the verdicts were read that he is angry that the prosecution brought up the Taliban and al-Qaeda during the trial.
“What does giving charity to the Palestinians in the refugee camps have to do with this?” he said. “They scared the jurors. Fear is the No. 1 government tactic.”
Additional information by The Dallas Morning News: