Wednesday, May 27, 2009
By JASON TRAHAN / The Dallas Morning News
U.S. District Judge Jorge Solis on Wednesday morning handed down sentences that will likely mean two founders of the Holy Land Foundation will spend the rest of their lives behind bars for financing the terrorist group Hamas.
Shukri Abu Baker, 50, of Garland was ordered to serve 65 years in prison as sentencing began for five men convicted on charges in the largest terrorism financing case in American history. Another founder, Ghassan Elashi, 55, of Richardson, was sentenced to 65 years in prison.
Elashi maintained his innocence even as he was sentenced.
“What motivated me to this charitable work was seeing in the press, media images of Palestinians’ homes being demolished, seeing the indiscriminate arrest of Palesitnians,” he said.
“Nothing was more rewarding than … turning the charitable contributions of American Muslims into life assistance for the Palestinians. That’s what motivated me.”
Speaking to the audience and ignoring the judge, Elashi continued: “We gave the essentials of life – oil rice flour. The occupation was proving them with death and destruction. And then we are criminals. The Holy Land Foundation was to assist the Palestinians in their steadfastness against the brutal apartheid regime” of Israel.
The judge warned him to address the court and not the audience.
After Elashi wrapped up by saying that this was an “unjust political prosecution,” lead prosecutor Jim Jacks argued for the maximum sentence.
“There’s been no acknowledgment by any of these defendants regarding their connection to Hamas,” he said. “They haven’t been deterred. Their entire sentencing presentation is (that) they’re being punished for providing charity. It’s important for the court to impose a sentence that says this is not a case about punishing people for doing nice things.”
“I did it because I cared, not at the behest of Hamas,” Baker told the judge during a long address to the court where he explained why he founded what was once the nation’s largest Muslim charity organization.
Judge Solis, after cutting him off over the objections of his defense attorney, told the convicted man, “You didn’t tell the whole story. Palestinians were in a desperate situation, but that doesn’t justify supporting Hamas.”
Another defendant, Mohammad El-Mezain, 55, was sentenced to 180 months in prison, followed by three years of supervisory release after serving that time. Jurors found him guilty of providing support to Hamas, having been acquitted on 31 other charges in 2007.
“I believe I am innocent and have not committed any crime,” El Mezain said in an impassioned speech. “We believe that this is the land of the free and the land of the Constitution. We were doing the right thing at the Holy Land Foundation.”
Afterwards, Judge Solis told him: “Your function in life was raising money to support Hamas. You stated it was to help people, but the motive was to support Hamas. You state that you are innocent, but the evidence shows the opposite. You were part of this from the beginning.”
Mufid Abdulqader, 49 and a top volunteer fundraiser for Holy Land, was sentenced to 20 years in prison. Jurors found him guilty on three charges, including conspiracy to provide material support to a foreign terrorist organization; conspiracy to provide funds, goods and services to a specially designated terrorist; and conspiracy to commit money laundering.
“I was acquitted of all charges” in the first trial, said Abdulqader. “And now I’m facing a long, long prison sentence. I do acknowledge the verdict in this trial. I believe in the system. My faith has not been shaken, it’s been inspired. But it is un-American to ignore suffering and starving women and children.”
Abdulrahman Odeh, 49, of Patterson, New Jersey, was sentenced to 15 years in prison. He was convicted on the same counts as Abdulqader.
The sentences come six months after a federal jury in Dallas convicted the men on Nov. 24 of funneling more than $12 million to the Palestinian group Hamas.
It has been illegal to offer Hamas support since it was designated a terrorist organization by the Unites States in 1995.
The group has taken credit for hundreds of suicide bombings targeting Israeli civilians.
The across-the-board convictions on 108 separate charges were a major victory for the Bush administration following a 2007 mistrial of the same five men on nearly identical charges.
The men were not accused of violence.
Rather, Holy Land contributed money to, among other things, agencies that supported survivors of suicide bombers.
Sometimes Holy Land officials sent those families money directly.
Holy Land’s supporters say the prosecution was a politically motivated product of Bush’s “war on terror” and a prime example of post-Sept. 11, anti-Islam hysteria.
Their lawyers portrayed them as pious Muslims who only wished to help their Palestinian brethren in need.
The government’s case, which was streamlined for the second trial, chronicled the founding of Holy Land in the late 1980s by Hamas supporters as the group’s primary source of fundraising in the United States.
Evidence showed that Holy Land organizers’ openly pro-Hamas rhetoric at fundraising rallies in the early 1990s was toned down after President Bill Clinton designated Hamas as a terrorist organization.
Elashi is already serving a 6 ½-year sentence in federal prison for export law violations. In the Holy Land trial, jurors found him guilty on 35 charges, including support of Hamas, money laundering and tax fraud.
Baker was born in Brazil in 1959, moved to Palestinian territory as a child and lived in Kuwait before coming to the U.S. in 1980. He served as Holy Land’s CEO. Jurors found him guilty on 34 charges, including support of Hamas, money laundering and tax fraud.
The remaining sentencings are expected to take the rest of the day.