DALLAS — The leader of a nationwide Muslim civil-rights group says fundraising has fallen off since the organization was named an unindicted co-conspirator in a terrorism-financing trial, a label that the organization is fighting in court.
Parvez Ahmed, chairman of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, said he believes the government tried to shut his group down by publicly alleging it was involved in the case.
The Washington-based group was one of about 250 Muslim individuals and groups named unindicted co-conspirators in the trial of Holy Land Foundation for Relief and Development. Five former Holy Land officials are accused of helping finance Hamas, which the U.S. government designated as a terrorist group.
Prosecutors filed an 11-page list of unindicted co-conspirators before the trial began last month, but the move attracted little attention until recently. The American-Islamic group asked the judge to remove it from the list and has tried to rally other American Muslims to its side.
The judge has barred prosecutors from talking to the press, and a spokeswoman for the U.S. Attorney’s office declined to comment.
Legal experts say prosecutors rarely make public the names of co-conspirators not charged with a crime, but there appear to be strategic reasons why they did so in this case.
Hearsay — a witness talking about something learned second-hand — is generally not allowed in trials because defendants can’t confront the source of the information.
But statements made by co-conspirators — those who helped the defendant conceive and carry out a crime — are an exception to the rule.
There are other ways to introduce hearsay statements in a trial, “but none that are quite that easy,” said Peter Margulies, a law professor at Roger Williams University. “You could argue that the naming of unindicted co-conspirators is the path of least resistance.”
Margulies, who follows terror-related trials, said naming unindicted co-conspirators is rare. The designation carries a stigma and the government often prefers to keep such information secret.
In the case of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, Margulies said, “There are reasons to be concerned about the chilling effect on the legitimate purposes of CAIR.”
Department of Justice guidelines for prosecutors suggest they should not name co-conspirators without “significant justification” and they “should remain sensitive to the privacy and reputation interests of uncharged third-parties.”
The manual says that it’s adequate to state in the indictment that others may have conspired with the person on trial, and that their identities can be supplied upon request.
But there have been exceptions to the policy, notably President Richard Nixon. He was named in connection with the 1974 indictments of several White House aides for obstructing justice.
Prosecutors believed a sitting president could not be indicted, but publicly naming Nixon a co-conspirator sent a message about the extent of the Watergate affair.
Aaron Mannes, author of “Profiles In Terror: The Guide To Middle East Terrorist Organizations,” said prosecutors in the Holy Land case might have had a similar motive by naming so many co-conspirators, many of whom live in the United States.
“The Department of Justice could argue there was a governmental interest in telling the public that there was a massive terrorist fund-raising operation going on in the United States,” he said.
The Council on American-Islamic Relations has come up several times in testimony. An FBI agent said two founders of the group were present at a 1993 meeting in Philadelphia at which Hamas supporters plotted how to derail a peace accord between Israel and the Palestinians.
Ahmed denied any link to Hamas by the council or the two founders who were in Philadelphia.
Ahmed said prosecutors were trying to damage his group’s reputation and chill Muslim opposition to the prosecution of Holy Land Foundation leaders.
“I don’t know how else to interpret it,” he said. “Our lawyers couldn’t find another case where the list of unindicted co-conspirators is this long and includes people who are dead, and that this was made public, violating the Department of Justice’s own guidelines.”
The dead co-conspirators include Sheik Ahmed Yassin, often described as the spiritual leader of Hamas, and his successor, Abdel Aziz Rantisi, both killed by Israeli air strikes in 2004.
For prosecutors, naming the dead Hamas leaders emphasized the premise of their case: that the Holy Land defendants were closely related to Hamas, said Margulies, the law professor.
Ahmed said fundraising by the American-Islamic group has fallen since it was named a co-conspirator.
A recent event in Orlando, Fla., that was expected to raise $250,000 brought in $160,000, he said. A dinner last weekend in Dallas that organizers hoped would raise $160,000 raised less than $100,000, he said.
“The (Orlando) chapter missed their target because some of the big donors they were expecting did not make those donations,” he said. “They don’t understand what an unindicted co-conspirator means. It’s obviously related to a criminal case, to terrorism, which makes it even worse.”
The council doesn’t disclose membership numbers. The Washington Times, citing tax filings, reported that the group’s membership fell from 29,000 in 2001 to about 1,700 in 2006. Ahmed called the numbers misleading but declined to provide his own.