Friday, June 5, 2009

Free the Holy Land 5


Click here to visit the "Free the Holy Land 5" Website

Click here to listen to the interview with Nancy Hollander, defense attorney for defendant Shukri abu-Baker on FLASHPOINTS Investigative News Radio

- Jason Trahan, "5 decry jail terms in Holy Land case" (Dallas Morning News)
- Jenn Stuart and Matt Camp, "Jailed for aiding Palestinians" (

5 decry jail terms in Holy Land case
The Dallas Morning News
May 28, 2009

The five defendants in the Holy Land Foundation case were defiant Wednesday while being sentenced for their roles in funneling money to overseas terrorists, expressing disbelief that American law could criminalize the feeding of needy Palestinian people.

Three maintained their steadfast innocence.

The judge in the largest terrorism financing case in U.S. history disagreed, handing down sentences to two that will likely mean they'll spend the rest of their lives behind bars for financing the terrorist group Hamas. The others were given sentences ranging from 15 to 20 years.

"Your function in life was raising money to support Hamas," U.S. District Judge Jorge Solis told one of them in words that were repeated in some fashion as each defendant learned his fate.

"You stated it was to help people, but the motive was to support Hamas," the judge said. "You state that you are innocent, but the evidence shows the opposite."

If the federal judge, the FBI and prosecutors were expecting contriteness, they were sorely disappointed.

"We gave the essentials of life – oil, rice, flour," former Holy Land board chairman Ghassan Elashi said before receiving his 65-year sentence.

"The [Israeli] occupation was providing them with death and destruction. The Holy Land Foundation was to assist the Palestinians in their steadfastness against the brutal apartheid regime.

"I would like to declare my innocence of all the charges," he said.

108 charges

Last fall, all five men were convicted on 108 charges that they funneled more than $12 million to the Palestinian group Hamas after the Clinton administration in 1995 declared it a terrorist group for sponsoring suicide bombings targeting Israelis.

The convictions were a major counterterrorism victory for the Justice Department, which has failed to get guilty verdicts on the most serious charges in other similar trials around the country.

"Today's sentences mark the culmination of many years of painstaking investigative and prosecutorial work at the federal, state and local levels," David Kris, assistant attorney general for national security, said in a prepared statement Wednesday. "These sentences should serve as a strong warning to anyone who knowingly provides financial support to terrorists under the guise of humanitarian relief."

Holy Land prosecutor Jim Jacks noted the defiant nature of the men's remarks while arguing for maximum penalties for the charity's former leadership.

"There's been no acknowledgment by any of these defendants regarding their connection to Hamas," Jacks said. "They haven't been deterred. Their entire sentencing presentation is 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."

The government acknowledged that the former Richardson organization, once the largest Muslim charity in the U.S., did provide aid to Palestinians. But the evidence showed that they sent money to Palestinian charity offices controlled by Hamas. U.S. law prohibits any aid, even humanitarian, going to any designated terrorist group.

Hamas, the evidence showed during trial, parlayed that aid into support for its violent agenda to destroy Israel. That included funneling aid to family members of suicide bombers, ensuring a steady stream of new suicide recruits, testimony showed.

Plea for leniency

Defense attorneys hoping for leniency fought an uphill battle with Solis on Wednesday, who repeatedly disputed arguments that the defendants broke no laws and did not support Hamas.

"You did support Hamas in violation of the law," Solis told Elashi. "If the Holy Land Foundation did have a face, it was the face of Hamas."

Nancy Hollander, attorney for former Holy Land CEO Shukri Abu Baker, tried to use the case of Ali Saleh Kahlah al-Marri to persuade to judge to go easy. Al-Marri pleaded guilty in April to one count of conspiracy to provide material support to al-Qaeda.

"This is a man who admits he came to the U.S. as a sleeper agent and the government believes 15 years is sufficient," Hollander said.

Solis retorted that "raising millions of dollars to fund terrorism, that's a different situation." He said that al-Marri is an example of someone who wanted to "commit 'an' act of terrorism, as bad as that is. This is support over years."

He sentenced Abu Baker to 65 years.

Mohammad El-Mezain, former Holy Land endowments director and a Muslim prayer leader who delivered fiery speeches on confiscated videotapes in the case, spoke passionately about his devotion to charity, which he said was "more important to me than any political agenda."

"We did it all in the name of America," said El-Mezain, who received 15 years. "The Holy Land Foundation was no different than any other Jewish or Baptist charity."


Dennis Lormel, who created the FBI's Terrorist Financing Operations Section and now is a security consultant, said after the sentencings that the punishments were appropriate.

"Holy Land and the five guilty principals fully deserve the sentences handed down," he said. "Anyone criticizing the U.S. government in this matter should redirect their criticism to where it's deserved. Hamas is a terrorist organization that clearly exploited the vulnerability of charitable giving for their organizational benefit as opposed to the benefit of the Palestinian people."

Mark Briskman, head of the regional office of the pro-Jewish Anti-Defamation League, lauded Solis as a "no-nonsense judge who gets it."

"The implication of this trial is significant, and the sentencing handed down by the judge indicates that seriousness."

Kay Guinane, program manager for the Charity and Security Network, a project of the government watchdog group OMB Watch, predicted more trouble for U.S. charities doing international outreach, which is already suffering because of the Holy Land prosecution.

"The ... sentences handed down in the Holy Land Foundation trial indicate that this situation is likely to get worse," she said.


Jailed for aiding Palestinians
Jenn Stuart and Matt Camp
27 May 2009

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.

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.

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.