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Militant Islam Monitor > Articles > Prosecution of Holy Land Foundation begins again today

Prosecution of Holy Land Foundation begins again today

September 15, 2008

Holy Land prosecution begins again

12:00 AM CDT on Monday, September 15, 2008
The Dallas Morning News

Prosecutors are getting a rare second crack at proving the Holy Land Foundation fed terrorism, almost a year after a hung jury in the case set back the Bush administration's economic front in the war on terrorism.

G.J. MCCARTHY/DMN G.J. MCCARTHY/DMNAfter a mistrial was declared on Oct. 22, Mohammad El-Mezain was congratulated by a supporter at the federal courthouse in Dallas. Mr. El-Mezain and four others faces a new trial that begins today in connection with the Holy Land Foundation of Richardson.

Beginning today, they'll try to convince another North Texas jury that the former Richardson charity funneled millions of dollars to Palestinian terrorists.

"No one is saying these people were about to blow anything up," said Robert Chesney, a Wake Forest University law professor who researches terrorism financing trials.

But "this case has a lot of eyeballs on it," he said. "As a matter of perception, this is really important to the [Justice Department] to take what has been called a failed case and turn it around."

The government hopes to use its evidence, gathered over 15 years, to prove that from 1997 to 2001 the foundation sent more than $12 million to overseas charities, called zakat committees, controlled by Hamas. Some money went directly to families of suicide bombers, prosecutors say.

The U.S. outlawed any support, even humanitarian aid, to Hamas in 1995.

Defense attorneys say their clients never funded Hamas and sought only to give much-needed help to Palestinian families battling crippling poverty caused by the Arab-Israeli conflict.

Both sides in the case declined to comment for this report, citing a gag order.

Three of the five defendants are facing fewer charges this time around, which could mean a somewhat more streamlined narrative. But all five defendants, who were foundation organizers, still face conspiracy counts alleging they aided Hamas.

Story still complicated

That means jurors likely will still have to absorb the same complicated storyline from last year, told through FBI testimony, hundreds of documents, videos and translations of wiretapped conversations.

Chances are the retrial will feel much like its predecessor: more endless board meeting than international spy thriller.

The prosecution's first case featured much dry, often disjointed testimony focusing on financial transactions and other minutiae not unlike most white-collar criminal trials. Complicating matters was the seemingly endless international cast of characters whose Arabic names frequently left jurors and observers in a fog.

In the end, jurors had to evaluate two months of testimony about hundreds of pieces of evidence, much translated from Arabic, to decide guilt or innocence on 197 separate counts. Even the judge at the time joked that the jury charge and verdict form resembled a phone book.

After 19 days of deliberation thought to be a state record jurors deadlocked. Initially, they all agreed on some acquittals on some counts. But most of those were thrown out Oct. 22 after one juror announced to a stunned courtroom that she had changed her mind.

That former juror, Kristina Williams, 50, of Waxahachie, said she'll be watching the retrial coverage closely.

"I still feel like I did the right thing by standing up," she said. "I believe the government had a good case."

The Holy Land prosecutors have the advantage in the retrial because they know the defense tactics from the outset, said Robert Hirschhorn, a nationally known jury consultant based in Lewisville.

But the prosecution still has to overcome jurors' natural tendency to view people providing humanitarian aid favorably, he added.

"We're not talking about guns, bullets and grenades," he said. "We're talking about school books and medical supplies. That has doubt built right into it. And if the jurors have a reasonable doubt, then they have to acquit."

The government has much in its arsenal:

Jurors will see a videotape of Mufid Abdulqader singing "I am Hamas" on a confiscated fundraising video where he also pretends to kill an Israeli during a skit.

Abdulrahman Odeh is heard praising Hamas suicide bombings as "a beautiful operation" in an intercepted phone call to co-defendant Mohammad El-Mezain.

At a 1993 meeting of Hamas sympathizers at a Philadelphia motel, the FBI secretly listened as Holy Land's former CEO Shukri Abu Baker said "war is deception," talking about efforts to play down Holy Land's extremist ties to keep the money flowing.

Defense attorneys told jurors last year that their clients' often virulent anti-Semitism is an exercise of free speech not proof that they violated U.S. law prohibiting aid to terrorists. One defendant, Ghassan Elashi, even went to the FBI along with a former U.S. congressman to get guidance on which overseas charities were off-limits but was spurned.

Who controls zakats?

Much of the government's evidence pre-dates Hamas' terrorist designation, the defense says.

A key question in the case is who controls the zakat committees that received Holy Land money.

Last year, the government relied on "Avi," an Israeli Shin Bet agent, to testify that zakat committees are staffed by militant Hamas operatives. An Israeli agent is again on witness lists, but it is unclear whether it will be the same one.

Defense attorneys lambasted Avi's testimony as biased, anti-Palestinian political rhetoric.

They countered with the former No. 2 intelligence official at the State Department, who told jurors that during his years in Jerusalem, he was never was told that the zakat committees were part of Hamas, even though he received daily CIA briefings. He is expected to testify again.

Counterterrorism experts are divided on whether the success of the Holy Land investigation, which has cost taxpayers untold millions, depends on the trial's outcome.

Peter Margulies, a law professor at Roger Williams University who studies terrorism prosecutions, said that failure to win convictions "would be a black eye for the government."

From an intelligence perspective, the case is already won, said Fred Burton, an ex-State Department counterterrorism agent now with the private intelligence firm Stratfor in Austin.

"Let's say that none of these people spend a day in prison. It's still a success from the perspective of disruption of the network," he said. "The jury will have to establish whether crimes have been committed, but the intelligence case has already been made."

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