Jury still out in Holy Land terror-financing trial
By PAUL J. WEBER Associated Press Writer © 2008 The Associated Press
Nov. 23, 2008, 3:06PM
DALLAS — Noor Elashi waits in a luxury hotel each day while a jury in the federal courthouse nearby mulls whether her father helped run one of the biggest terrorism financing schemes in U.S. history.
“Every time my phone vibrates or rings, I panic,” Elashi said. “My heart starts beating so fast, it’s like a drum roll. I’m thinking that it’s my dad’s attorney saying the verdict is out.”
After more than a week, that call has yet to come.
On Monday, jurors will begin an eighth day of deliberations in the retrial of the Holy Land Foundation for Relief and Development, once the nation’s largest Muslim charity and a banner government target of alleged terrorism fundraising on American soil.
Holy Land is accused of giving more than $12 million to support the Palestinian militant group Hamas, which the U.S. designated as a terrorist organization in 1995 and made supporting the group illegal.
Ghassan Elashi, Noor’s father, is Holy Land’s former board chairman and could face life in prison on 35 charges that include supporting terrorism and tax fraud. Four other leaders of the defunct charity are also being retried following last year’s mistrial.
By any measure, the Holy Land case has been a long one. Two high-profile trials lasted months after 15 years of federal investigation. It’s been seven years since the daughter of Holy Land chief executive Shukri Abu-Baker remembers FBI agents storming inside like “something out of a movie” after President Bush froze the foundation’s assets.
“I don’t think we’ve been able to go to sleep the right way for the past seven years,” said Zaira Abu-Baker, 25, a private school teacher whose father is facing 34 charges. “I’m trying to concentrate with 27 first-graders around.”
Family members have occupied many of the front benches during both trials. Across the street, Holy Land supporters kept a steady presence with posters and banners with slogans such as “Feeding children is not a crime.” Some are held by the downtown homeless, who are given free sandwiches.
Prosecutors say Holy Land didn’t buy bombs or commit violence, but instead raised money to build Hamas-controlled schools and hospitals to win the hearts of Palestinians, spread Hamas ideology and recruit members. Abu-Baker and Elashi, who stuffed envelopes at Holy Land’s headquarters as teenagers, say the charities only helped provide for the needy.
Attorneys for both sides are under a long-standing gag order not to discuss the trial, which is the nation’s largest terrorism-financing case since the 9/11 attacks.
“This case is about unraveling deceptions,” prosecutor Elizabeth Shapiro said during opening arguments in September. “These men put money into the hands of a terrorist organization.”
The case has cost the government millions. The American-born daughters of the defendants say it has taken a financial toll on them as well.
Noor Elashi, a former reporter for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, said she and her mom’s teaching salary help raise her brothers and sisters without her dad’s income. Zaira Abu-Baker said she enjoyed a more financially comfortable upbringing than her three siblings have today.
Deliberations in last year’s original trial — which attracted wider media coverage and larger courtroom audience — lasted 19 days before jurors deadlocked on most counts and a judge declared a mistrial.
“It’s definitely been a long, draining ride,” Noor Elashi said. “It’s time for it to be over. We are in desperate need of closure.”