Muslim charity terror-funding trial wraps up

DALLAS — Federal prosecutors said Monday that the Holy Land Foundation for Relief and Development, whose collection buckets were once a common sight outside mosques, used charity as a cover for financing international terrorism.

Prosecutors said Holy Land officials worked with the Palestinian militant group Hamas to target aid to families of suicide bombers and militants jailed in Israel.

“The HLF was helping Hamas take care of its own,” said prosecutor Barry Jonas, who summed up the government’s case after two months of testimony in federal court.

But defense lawyer Nancy Hollander said prosecutors built their case on the word of one Israeli official who testified under a false name, and showed the jury only selective evidence.

“Who is it that’s being deceptive?” she asked jurors. “Do you really trust the government?”

The government shut down Holy Land in December 2001. The Texas-based group and five of its former leaders are on trial on charges of aiding terrorists, conspiracy and money laundering. Closing arguments are expected to finish Wednesday, and the case will go to the jury.

Prosecutors say Holy Land funneled more than $12 million to Palestinian schools and charities controlled by the militant group Hamas after the U.S. government declared Hamas a terrorist group in 1995, which made supporting it illegal.

Jonas played several videotapes in a bid to use the defendants’ own words against them. One, he said, showed people singing pro-Hamas songs at a Holy Land fundraiser. Another captured one of the defendants, former Holy Land chairman Mohammed El-Mezain, urging force to remove Jews from former Arab lands in Gaza and the West Bank.

“The Intifada has risen so that the people as a whole return to Jihad and Palestine returns, from the (Jordan) river to the (Mediterranean) sea,” El Mezain said on the tape. Jonas said the comments showed the defendants’ desire to finance Hamas, which calls for the elimination of Israel.

Jonas showed the jury bank records that detailed millions in money transfers from Holy Land to Palestinian charities called zakat committees. The Israeli official, who testified under the pseudonym “Avi,” had said that Hamas members were among the leaders of each zakat.

Jonas said Holy Land leaders had lied to the press and public about their true purpose. “Do not let them deceive you,” he said. “Find them guilty.”

Hollander countered that Holy Land was “a real charity” that helped “the desperately poor people of Palestine.” She pointed to a 2003 report by a United Nations agency that said Holy Land and three other charities provided food to about one-fourth of the Palestinian population.

Hollander said there was no evidence that the zakat committees funded by Holy Land were controlled by Hamas. She noted that none have ever been listed by the U.S. government as terrorist organizations. And she took square aim at the witness who said the zakats were controlled by Hamas, the Israeli known only as Avi.

“What this really comes down to is, ‘What did Avi say?'” she said.

The official was allowed to testify under a phony name at the Israeli government’s request.

The prosecution’s case relies heavily on thousands of pages of documents such as bank records and on video and audio tapes that showed some of the defendants meeting with Hamas members and supporters.

Prosecutors wrapped up their side of the case several weeks ahead of schedule — perhaps mindful that defendants in two other long terror-financing trials were acquitted on the most serious charges.

Defense attorneys called a retired U.S. consul general in Jerusalem, Edward Abington, who testified that he had been privy to CIA briefings but never heard that the Holy Land-backed zakat committees were under Hamas control.

If the defendants are found guilty and the jury determines their actions resulted in deaths, the men could face up to life in prison.

In addition to El-Mezain, the other defendants are former Holy Land chief executive Shukri Abu Baker, former chairman Ghassan Elashi, former fundraiser Mufid Abdulqader, and Abdulrahman Odeh, the group’s representative in New Jersey. Two other men named in the indictment were never arrested and are believed to be in the Middle East.

The Holy Land Foundation sued the federal government to regain its assets after the 2001 seizure. But in 2004, the U.S. Supreme Court let stand a ruling that upheld the seizure.

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Religion News Blog posted this on Tuesday September 18, 2007.
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