Jailed for aiding Palestinians

May 27, 2009

Jenn Stuart and Matt Camp report on how federal prosecutors railroaded five men on anti-terrorism charges because their organization provided aid to Palestinian charities.

FOLLOWING CONVICTIONS for aiding international terrorism that were won through fear-mongering and highly questionable evidence, five human rights activists from the Holy Land Foundation will face sentencing May 27 in Dallas.

The defendants--Ghassan Elashi, Shukri Abu-Baker, Mufid Abdulqader, Abdulrahman Odeh and Mohammad El-Mezain--are accused of raising material aid for Hamas, the Palestinian political party that is considered by the U.S. Treasury and State Departments to be a terrorist organization.

The defendants were affiliated with a human rights group, the Holy Land Foundation (HLF), which was targeted by the U.S. government in 2001 for aiding Hamas.

The HLF, a charity group, logged taxes for its charitable work and income. However, once the government deemed HLF to be aiding terrorism, the five defendants faced tax evasion charges because the government did not deem HLF's work to be "charity," but rather a means of funding international terrorism.

The now defunct Holy Land Foundation was the largest Muslim charity in the U.S. Founded in 1989, it provided relief to Palestinian refugees in Lebanon, Jordan and occupied Palestine. It also aided Muslims other countries, including Bosnia, Albania, Chechnya, Turkey and the U.S. By 2001, its annual budget reached about $14 million. The HLF generated money for the Palestinian people by holding fundraisers in the form of cultural celebrations, which centered on the American Muslim community.

Supporters held vigils outside the trials of the five men convicted for participating in the Holy Land Foundation charity
Supporters held vigils outside the trials of the five men convicted for participating in the Holy Land Foundation charity (Indymedia)

But in 2001, then-Attorney General John Ashcroft announced "a new front in the war on terror" with the stated purpose of cracking down on domestic organizations that allegedly provided material aid to terrorist groups. The HLF was at the top of his list. In July 2004, a federal grand jury released a 42-count indictment that accused the HLF of providing funds to entities linked to the militant group Hamas.

In July 2007, the HLF case went to court. After three months of trial and testimony, the U.S. was unable to link the HLF to Hamas, resulting in a not-guilty verdict. However, the judge presiding over the case declared a mistrial after a jury member insinuated that his vote to acquit had been coerced amid rumors of jury tampering by the prosecution.

In September 2008, a new trial began that ultimately yielded guilty verdicts on reduced charges. The five defendants were sent to federal prison in Seagoville, Texas, prior to sentencing.

IN THE second trial, the government acted on what it had learned in the first, when jurors weren't convinced by prosecutors' far-fetched claims of an HLF-Hamas link. This time, prosecutors based their case on fear and manipulation.

What you can do

For more information on this case, and to find out what can be done to support the HLF Five, visit the Freedom to Give Web site.

Furthermore, prosecutors were aided by the testimony of an individual known only as "Avi," who was alleged to be an official in the Israeli government. "Avi" was the only witness who alluded to supposed evidence that the HLF was indeed linked to Hamas. However, because of "Avi's" supposed high-ranking position, his identity, role in the Israeli government and sources for evidence regarding the HLF were not revealed in court. This was a first in U.S. judicial history.

What's more, boxes of materials used in the case by prosecutors--known as demonstratives--found their way to the jury room. These included speeches prepared for presentation by the prosecution and images of violence carried out by Hamas.

The demonstratives were part of the prosecution's presentation to the jury and aren't considered fact. Allowing jurors access to such materials is normally prohibited. Only those items entered as evidence are supposed to be available to the jurors during their deliberations.

The jurors in the HLF case even sent a message to the judge asking if anything might have been included in their materials accidentally. But the judge assured the jurors that all the information before them was fact, including speeches the prosecution claimed were mistakenly delivered to the jurors.

Though no direct correlation was made between the HLF and Hamas, HLF was accused of helping to win "the hearts and minds of the Palestinian people" for Hamas. The HLF did make monetary donations to charities within Palestine. Yet these very same charities also received money from the U.S. Agency for International Development. And these Palestinian organizations weren't included on the Treasury or State Department lists of terrorist-related organizations at the time of the trial.

In fact, the charitable organizations, including the HLF, were issued licenses by the Fatah-dominated Palestinian Authority government in order to act within the Occupied Territories. Fatah, a bitter rival of Hamas, is unlikely to have issued licenses to organizations it suspects of funding its rivals.

Nevertheless, in the second trial of HLF defendants, the existence of licenses to operate charitable organizations in Palestine were thrown out, on the grounds that this evidence relies upon foreign governments. Of course, the prosecution relied on such evidence, too, thanks to "Avi."

What's more, the judge in the second trial allowed violations of "chain of custody" rules, which require authorized and secure handling of evidence. These rules were bypassed to allow largely circumstantial and highly suspect evidence acquired in Israeli Defense Force raids on the local headquarters of charities in Palestine. The court's admission of evidence outside the chain of custody mandate is yet another dubious first in U.S. judicial history.

For all these reasons, the Holy Land Foundation case stands out among the many blatant miscarriages of justice in recent U.S. history.

Beyond this, the HLF case is an attempt by the U.S. government to criminalize the entire Muslim community. By the standards of the prosecution's list of alleged unindicted co-conspirators, anyone who made a contribution to the HLF can be accused of the same alleged crimes for which the five defendants were convicted.

Indeed, many leading figures in the Muslim community were shocked to find that they were listed as unindicted co-conspirators. Even the North American Islamic Trust, an organization that owns the deeds to most of the mosques in the U.S., was listed as an unindicted suspect group. Since the HLF operated largely in Muslim communities, the implication is that all Muslims are suspect.

Whatever prison sentences are handed down to Ghassan Elashi, Shukri Abu-Baker, Mufid Abdulqader, Abdulrahman Odeh and Mohammad El-Mezain, the verdict will almost certainly be appealed. Local activist groups are organizing demonstrations in the hopes of pressuring the courts to dismiss the charges.

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