Salah and Ashqar convicted of obstruction of justice as lawyers praise Hamas linked clients "fight for freedom" against "illegal occupation"
February 1, 2007
MIM: Terrorist lawyer William Moffitt and Michael Deutsch exulted that known Hamas operatives Mohammed Salah and Abdelhaleem Ashqar were able to evade justice and were 'only' convicted on charges of obstructing justice. Yet another case to show that terrorism cases should not be tried in civilian courts and treated as a form of criminality.
Short of actually detonating an explosive jurors are reluctant to convict defendants in terror cases because the the ties to terrorist groups are hard to prove in court and often involve jeopardising national security.
Federal Jury Acquits Two Men of Terror Charges for Hamas Links
A federal jury in Chicago acquitted two men today of charges that they were part of a 15-year conspiracy to finance Hamas activities in Israel -- marking the second recent defeat for the Justice Department in cases involving a Palestinian terrorist group.
Abdelhaleem Ashqar, 48, a former Howard University professor who lives in Springfield, and Muhammad Salah, 53, a former grocer from suburban Chicago, were found not guilty of racketeering conspiracy, the most serious charge against them that could have drawn life sentences.
But the two men were convicted of separate charges of obstruction of justice, which carries a penalty ranging from probation to five years in prison.
The defendants and their attorneys immediately characterized the verdicts as a victory and said it showed the government had overreached in its attempts to punish opponents of the Israeli state.
"It was better than we thought," a tearful Salah told reporters in Chicago. "We are good people, not terrorists."
Salah's attorney, Michael Deutsch, called the verdict "a tremendous victory" and said he "may not even go to prison at all."
"This rejects the idea we can criminalize someone for resisting an illegal occupation in another country," Deutsch said.
The prosecution of Ashqar and Salah was deemed so important to the Justice Department that the original 2004 indictments were announced by then-Attorney General John Ashcroft, who said that "terrorists have lost yet another source of financing for their bombs and bloodshed."
But the final outcome of the case is decidedly mixed, and came after three weeks of deliberation by the Chicago jury. It also marks the second time in recent years that the Justice Department has attempted to prosecute U.S. residents for support of militant Palestinian organizations before they had been designated as terrorist groups.
In a high-profile case in 2005, a jury in Florida acquitted former computer professor Sami al-Arian of eight terrorism charges and deadlocked on nine others. Arian eventually pleaded guilty to supporting members of the Palestinian Islamic Jihad, and is slated to be deported after finishing a short prison term.
One of Arian's attorneys, William Moffit, also represented Ashqar in the current Chicago case.
"After trying this and the Sami al-Arian case, I'm now convinced an American jury will not put someone in prison for fighting for their freedom," Moffitt said.
Justice Department officials did not immediately comment on the verdict. The case was prosecuted by the office of U.S. Attorney Patrick J. Fitzgerald, who is in the spotlight as the special prosecutor in the Washington trial of Vice President Cheney's former chief of staff, I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby.
Staff writer Kari Lydersen in Chicago contributed to this report.
Acquitted of Conspiracy in Hamas Trial
By MIKE ROBINSON
CHICAGO - Two men accused of furnishing money and fresh recruits to the militant Palestinian group Hamas were acquitted Thursday of racketeering but convicted on lesser charges.
The two men beamed broadly at the split verdict and defense attorneys immediately declared victory in the three-month trial that the government had described as a major component in its war on terrorism.
"We are not terrorists," former grocer Muhammad Salah told reporters as he left the courthouse with his 8-year-old son, Ibrahim, on his shoulders. "I feel good," he said as he was hugged by relatives and well wishers. "I thank God and I hope justice will prevail."
"This is a great day for justice," said Salah's attorney, Michael E. Deutsch.
Salah, 53, and Abdelhaleem Ashqar, 48, a one-time assistant business professor at Howard University in Washington, had been accused of laundering money for Hamas terrorists fighting to topple the Israeli government.
Defense attorneys portrayed the men as freedom fighters, comparing them to Nelson Mandela, Malcolm X and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.
Salah and Ashqar, who lives in Springfield, Va., have always denied being members of Hamas. But they have made no secret of their dislike of the occupation of the West Bank and Gaza.
Salah was convicted of obstruction of justice for providing false answers to questions in a civil suit filed by parents of an American teenager who was shot and killed by Hamas terrorists at an Israeli bus stop.
Ashqar was convicted of obstruction of justice and criminal contempt for refusing to testify before a federal grand jury after receiving immunity from prosecution for anything that he might have revealed.
The jury delivered the verdict amid heavy security in the courtroom after deliberating for 14 days. Jurors declined to comment on the verdict before leaving the courthouse.
"We've convicted them _ it's hard to say that we're disappointed," First Assistant U.S. Attorney Gary Shapiro said.
Defense attorneys said they hoped to have the convictions reversed on appeal but added that, at worst, the men would likely serve comparatively short sentences.
"It is very hard for an American jury to find people guilty if they're fighting for their rights," said William Moffitt, Ashqar's attorney.
Also charged in the case is Abu Mousa Marzook, described as one of the top leaders of Hamas. Prosecutors said it was Marzook who sent Salah on his mission to Israel and supplied him with money to give to Hamas leaders.
FBI agents also intercepted phone calls between Ashqar and Marzook.
Marzook is currently living in Damascus, Syria, and is classified by the government as a fugitive.
Associated Press writer Nathaniel Hernandez contributed to this story
February 1, 2007
(Daily Southtown file photo)
Born in Jerusalem, Mohammed Salah eventually settled in Bridgeview and has held jobs including car salesman, store owner, college teacher and van driver.
He's also held the distinction of being the only U.S. citizen designated an international terrorist by the U.S. government.
In a confession to Israeli agents, revelations he claims were coerced, Salah said he was recruited into the Muslim Brotherhood — widely viewed as a precursor to Hamas — by the Imam of the Bridgeview mosque, Jamal Said, in the 1980s. In a matter of years, he allegedly rose to a top rank as the U.S.-based military leader of Hamas.
His 1993 arrest in the West Bank, where he was accused of delivering large sums of cash to Hamas fighters, thrust his name into headlines around the globe, and it's been in and out ever since. He pleaded guilty to charges in Israel and returned to Bridgeview after spending more than four years in prison there.
Salah, 53, and a collection of other alleged south suburban Hamas fundraisers were targeted in a federal lawsuit that ultimately led to a $156 million judgment in favor of the parents of a Jewish teen killed in a 1996 West Bank terrorist attack.
In 1998, federal prosecutors went to court to seize $1.4 million in assets they claimed Salah meant to funnel to Hamas. Newly revealed court documents show prosecutors were prepared to settle the case in July 2001 under an agreement that would have let the government keep the cash and Salah keep his Thomas Street house.
But the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks two months later changed the playing field and the long-running federal probe into Salah's past, dubbed Vulgar Betrayal, was reincarnated.
In August 2004, then-U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft held a Washington news conference to announce terrorism charges against Salah.
Free on bond, Salah has remained essentially under house arrest in a modest home that prosecutors have noted is just a "stone's throw" from the mosque where he allegedly was first drawn into Palestinian militancy.
His defense has had ups and downs — a crushing blow when a judge ruled a series of confessions Salah gave to the Israelis can be used against him here; later a victory when prosecutors abruptly dropped charges he provided support to a terrorist organization.
But he still can't escape his alleged doings of more than a decade ago: The allegations of Hamas activity remain couched in a more mundane charge of racketeering. Just as he did last week as his jury was selected, Salah has sat silently through the dozens of court hearings leading up to this week's trial — always wearing simple, workingman clothes and an expressionless gaze.
By far the more urbane of the two defendants, former Howard University professor Ashqar dresses impeccably and moves like a subdued politician through the courtroom prior to each hearing — politely greeting lawyers, reporters and well-wishers.
The Alexandria, Va., resident long has been a prominent Palestinian activist; earlier this month, it was revealed Ashqar at one point was described as an "asset" by FBI agents, and was also once the subject of a CIA recruitment effort. But since at least 1991 Ashqar has rejected demands he cooperate with federal authorites probing Hamas, proclaiming he would "rather die than betray my beliefs and commitment to freedom and democracy for Palestine."
Indeed, the mild-mannered intellectual has waged two high-profile hunger strikes — in New York in 1998 and Chicago in summer 2003 — while locked up for refusing to testify before federal grand juries about Hamas activities despite grants of immunity. Judges ordered him force-fed liquids through the jugular vein in his neck, and later through a tube snaked through his nose and into his throat.
He was charged in this case in October 2003, and Salah was added as a defendant a year later. The racketeering indictment alleges Ashqar served as a U.S.-based "information clearinghouse" for Hamas, meticulously tracking the group's terrorist operations overseas and alleged money-raising efforts here.
He's portrayed by the goverment as a behind-the-scenes Hamas guru: In a warrantless search of Ashqar's home in 1993, agents found debriefing reports of local operatives returning from missions in the Middle East. One summary lamented Salah's capture in the West Bank, and concluded he "is not as strong mentally as he is physically. ... He is naive, and lacks the ability to take the right steps."