Monday, November 24, 2008
By JASON TRAHAN and TANYA EISERER / The Dallas Morning News
A jury on Monday determined that the Holy Land Foundation and five men who worked with the Muslim charity were guilty of three dozen counts related to the illegal funneling of at least $12 million to the Palestinian terrorist group Hamas.
The unanimous verdicts are a complete victory for the government, which streamlined its case after a mistrial last year, and worked hard to carefully educate jurors on the complex evidence presented in the massive case. Guilty verdicts were read on 108 separate charges.
The prosecution victory is also a major one for the administration of President George Bush, whose efforts at fighting terrorism financing in court have been troubled, even though the flow of funds seems to be effectively shut down.
“Today’s verdicts are important milestones in America’s efforts against financiers of terrorism,” Patrick Rowan, Assistant Attorney General for National Security said in a prepared statement.
“This prosecution demonstrates our resolve to ensure that humanitarian relief efforts are not used as a mechanism to disguise and enable support for terrorist groups,” he said.
Robert Hirschhorn, a nationally known jury consultant based in Lewisville, said “The jury has handed the government a huge victory and a loud and clear message has been sent — if any group funnels money to a terrorist organization, the government will hunt you down and turn off the money spigot.”
Later Monday, the jury determined that Holy Land should forfeit $12.4 million in defendants’ assets because of several convictions on money laundering charges related to the case.
It was the second trial where the government attempted to convict the men and the now defunct Richardson-based Holy Land Foundation itself. It took the jury eight days of deliberations to reach its decisions — less than half the time it took jurors to end up with an almost complete mistrial last year on the first go-around.
“It’s a sad day,” said Mohammed Wafa Yaish, Holy Land’s former accountant and himself a witness of the trial. “It looks like helping the needy Palestinians is a crime these days.”
Before he read the verdict, the judge had ordered all observers to remain civil and respect the proceedings.
“My dad is not a criminal!” sobbed one courtroom observer after the verdicts were read. “He’s a human!”
In the trial’s second, overflow courtroom, reaction to the verdicts was subdued. Family and friends left quietly. Several said they didn’t want to talk.
One supporter of the defendants who identified himself as Adel said, “It’s politicized. I don’t think there is justice. I know these guys. I think everything is lies.”
John Wolf, a friend and member of the Hungry for Justice coalition, said he’d known the defendants for 12 years.
“I’m not surprised,” he said of the verdicts. “I think the government had their do-over and they learned from their mistakes. It’s hard to accept because I don’t believe the gentlemen are guilty. These guys are the sweetest, clean-hearted people.”
Opening statements at the Earle Cabell Federal Building in downtown Dallas began Sept. 22. Over the past two months, prosecutors attempted to prove that five former charity organizers used Holy Land, once the largest Muslim charity in the U.S., to funnel an estimated $60 million to the militant group — most of it before 1995.
Hamas was designated as a terrorist organization by the U.S. in 1995, and the trial centered on the $12 million the government said Holy Land and supporters funneled to the group after that date.
Defense attorneys argued that the foundation was a legitimate, non-political charity that helped distressed Palestinians under Israeli occupation. They accused the government of bending to Israeli pressure to prosecute the charity, and of relying on old evidence predating the 1995 designation.
Holy Land was formed in the late 1980s, and was shut down by U.S. government regulators in December 2001. The case was indicted in 2004.
Last year’s trial of the same five defendants ended in a hung jury Oct. 22, 2007. Jurors deliberated for 19 days before they deadlocked. Supporters on both side of the aisle were prepared to claim a victory, at least in the moral sense.
“The government showed in a streamlined case that where special assistance to the families of terrorists is concerned, cash is the moral equivalent of a car bomb,” said Peter Margulies, Roger Williams University law professor who studies terrorism financing cases.
“Going forward, however, the government must be more pro-active about furnishing guidance to Muslim-Americans who merely wish to fulfill their religious obligations,” he said.
Douglas Farah, a former Washington Post foreign correspondent who is now an author and terrorism consultant, said that the “trial provides an invaluable forum for publicly showing the true agenda of the international Muslim Brotherhood and its organizations in the United States — the abolition of the United States government as we know it and support for a designated terrorist organization.”
“Given this complete victory for the government … it is now incumbent on U.S. government agencies to stop dealing with them as if they were engaging in benign efforts to push an agenda of tolerance and civil rights.”
The Justice Department is likely to claim victory not only with the verdicts, but by trumpeting the shutdown of what prosecutors say was a robust and unsettling American network of terrorist funding.
Holy Land, regardless of the verdict, is defunct. And other international terrorism financing pipelines have been interrupted.
But critics of the government case argued that even convictions would carry an asterisk noting that it took untold millions of taxpayer dollars, 15 years of investigation and two long, high-profile trials to finally convince a jury of the defendants’ guilt.
“I think this case proves that, with enough effort, the federal government can convict nearly anyone,” said Tom Melsheimer, a former federal prosecutor in Dallas now in private practice.“Retrials tend to favor the prosecution, in my view, because the government can figure out what worked and what didn’t and streamline their presentation of the evidence. The defense, on the other hand, has already shown their cards and the government can be better prepared to respond.
“I fear that these convictions will convince the government of the justness of their overall cause but I view the convictions as compelling the opposite conclusion,” he said. “To spend millions of dollars in time and expenses to prosecute people who were of no real threat to anyone, under the banner of a terrorism case, is a waste of precious federal resources.
William Moffitt, a Virginia defense attorney who represented two former university professors, Abdelhaleem Ashqar and Sami Al-Arian, said before the Holy Land verdicts that he suspects the convicted defendants will be hailed as heroes by some.
“I suspect that they will be viewed much the same way that Mandela was viewed by the black South African population — as freedom fighters who have dedicated their lives to the liberation of Palestine,” he said. Mr. Ashqar and Mr. Al-Arian were acquitted in trials in Chicago and Florida on similar charges that they steered support to Palestinian terrorists.
Mr. Ashqar was sentenced to 11 years in prison last year for refusing to testify for a grand jury about his Hamas ties. Dr. Al-Arian pleaded guilty in 2006 to a charge of supporting Palestinian Islamic Jihad and is being held on contempt charges for refusing to co-operate in another terrorism support investigation. But both are viewed as folk heroes by some in the Muslim community.
Mr. Moffitt said Holy Land and the other cases are “show trials” where the government attempted to use “events that happened over 10 years ago” as evidence of crimes well before statutes specifically outlawing terrorism support were enacted.
“I think that the purpose of these trials was to further, in the minds of the public, the so-called ‘war on terrorism,’” he said. “There are legitimate terrorist organizations out there. But we’ve tried to make every group that doesn’t agree with us like al-Qaeda.”
Mr. Yaish, the Holy Land accountant, said Monday that he was angry that the prosecution brought up the Taliban and al Qaeda during the trial. He called that a fear tactic.
“What does giving charity to the Palestinians in the refugee camps have to do with this?”
“They scared the jurors,” he said. “Fear is the No. 1 government tactic.”