By Wajahat Ali, The Guardian
Wednesday December 3 2008 21.30 GMT
The Bush administration’s “war on terror” paraded a feather in its tattered cap with the Holy Land Foundation convictions delivered last week. Most observers accurately characterised this legal charade as a witch hunt, using Muslims and Arabs, specifically Palestinians, as its targets. In doing so the administration shamelessly abuses to advance its failed security measures and pro-Israel policy initiatives that systematically punishes Palestinians living in Gaza and the West Bank.
Five leaders from the once highly-respected charity group Holy Land Foundation, which gave nearly $12m to non-violent, Palestinian institutions to build hospitals and feed the poor, were convicted on 108 charges of supporting terrorism by funneling money to Hamas. A US official proudly declared: “Today’s verdicts are important milestones in America’s efforts against financiers of terrorism.” However, Linda Moreno, a defence lawyer for one of the HLF leaders, said she disagreed, and told me: “This was a political, ‘win at all costs’ prosecution.”
Indeed, the Bush administration suffered a humiliation in 2007 when its first prosecution against HLF ended in a mistrial, with the jurors deadlocked over the major counts. A juror from the 2007 trial said the government “kept showing us blown-up buses and they kept showing us little kids in bomb belts reenacting Hamas leaders … it had nothing to do with the actual charges. It had nothing to do with the defendants.”
The prosecution continued this strategy the second time around. Moreno explained to me that the US government “decided to use as much evidence of violence as they could get away with to inflame and scare the jury.” She continued: “The government conceded that my client, Ghassan Elashi, nor any of the other gentlemen, ever participated in any violence. There was not a single phone call or a scrap of evidence that showed Elashi supported violence; but there was evidence that he, along with all Palestinians, opposed the brutal Israeli occupation [of West Bank and Gaza.]”
This malicious prosecution was used by the administration to acquire a notch on its “get a terrorist” club. It also helps the administration to briefly save face for measures that have simultaneously trampled on our collective civil liberties while failing to adequately deter the tide of extremism and violence.
The three-trillion-dollar debacle of an Iraq war – which was sold to the global community on discredited and faulty evidence – significantly undermines the administration’s credibility and highlights its ideologically-motivated recklessness. The due process violations and lengthy detentions of innocents at the modern day gulag at Guantanamo Bay only strengthens any hesitation in blindly accepting the administration’s claims.
Yet, by picking on a perpetual scapegoat, the Palestinians, the US government acquires a few days worth of positive PR while creating a pervasive “chilling effect” that warns those who dare criticize their policy initiatives. As attorney and law professor John Turley told me: “For many Muslims, there is a state fear that these prosecutions are designed to deter any charity going to the Palestinian areas.” His client, Sami Al-Arian, is one of the most well-known and notorious victims of such attention – he is the Palestinian American professor whom John Ashcroft declared to be “the most dangerous financier of Palestinian Islamic Jihad in the Western Hemisphere.”
However, the chief prosecutor in Al-Arian’s trial conceded: “Mr Al-Arian was not directly linked to any of the violent acts that we showed during the trial.” Furthermore, a former FBI supervisor involved in the case admitted that they were in “shock” when the then attorney general John Ashcroft ordered it to indict Al-Arian since he felt the justice department rushed to indict Al-Arian without appraising the evidence.
In the Holy Land trial, the prosecution used “secret evidence” to convict the parties while denying the defense both access to the evidence or the ability to rebut it. Furthermore, in an unprecedented move, the Court allowed the testimony of an anonymous Israeli Shin Bet agent, named Avi, to support the claim that HLF funneled monies to Hamas. Defense lawyer Linda Moreno was flabbergasted:
If Avi lied during his testimony, which we proved he did, how could he be prosecuted for perjury when we did not know his identity? I would submit that not even the president of the United States could enjoy such immunity from the law; he would have to disclose his identity. But not so for the Israeli security agent.
And yet the real victims of this debacle are the Palestinians who are being brutalised under an occupation that sees no end. In Gaza, as Israel’s blockade of the coastal territory continues, the main power plant was forced to shut down – eliminating electricity for 70% of Gaza residents. Hospitals suspended emergency operations due to fuel shortages, the health ministry ran out of 300 essential medicines due to Israeli bans, and contaminated water leaked back into Gaza’s water supply, causing a rise in malnutrition and anemia amongst children.
Although many generous Americans want to help these people in need, they relent due to a paralyzing fear of facing a potential indictment. As John Turley explained to me, “People are terrified that any charity going to the Palestinian areas can be defined as material support if it benefits Hamas. Since Hamas controls these areas, it makes any charitable act a risky proposition.”
It’s a fitting testament to the absurdity and callousness of the Bush administration’s “compassionate conservatism” that attempting to feed some of the poorest people in the world amounts to supporting terrorism. Ultimately, because the administration failed to produce terrorists such as Osama bin Laden or Mullah Omar, it will publicly flog a Palestinian scapegoat. Sadly, the prosecution reveals the administration’s malicious pursuit of its own perverse sense of justice, one that sacrifices charity when dealing with those committed to helping human beings.