Holy Land Foundation Hamas funding trial: Guilty on all counts
November 24, 2008
Holy Land Foundation defendants guilty on all counts
03:44 PM CST on Monday, November 24, 2008By JASON TRAHAN and TANYA EISERER / The Dallas Morning News By 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 and worked hard to carefully educate jurors on the complex, massive evidence presented in the trial. Guilty verdicts were read on 108 separate charges.MICHAEL AINSWORTH/DMN Defendant Mohammad El-Mezain is embraced by Hadi Jawad outside the Earle Cabell Federal Building prior to Monday's reading of the Holy Land Foundation trial verdicts. At rear is Abdulrahman Odeh, Mr. El-Mezain's co-defendant. View larger More photos Photo store
The prosecution victory is also a major one for the lame duck 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.
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 deadlock end up with an almost complete mistrial last year on the first go-around.
"My dad is not a criminal!" sobbed one courtroom observer after the verdicts were read. "He's a human!"
"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.
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 know the defendants for 12 years.Also Online
"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."
By 3 p.m. Monday, jurors had been sent back to the jury room to determine if Holy Land assets should be forfeited to the government because of several convictions on money laundering charges related to the case.
Opening statements at the Earle Cabell Federal Courthouse 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.
Even before the verdicts were read, supporters on both side of the aisle were prepared to claim a moral victory.
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 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," William Moffitt, the Virginia defense attorney who represented two former university professors, Abdelhaleem Ashqar and Sami Al-Arian, said before the Holy Land verdicts.
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."
But 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.
"The government has achieved an awful lot of success here," said Dennis Lormel, who created the FBI's Terrorist Financing Operations Section after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and is now a security consultant.
"A lot of people will only look at the win/lose of the jury verdict," said Mr. Lormel, of IPSA International Inc. "I'm looking at it from the perspective of the flow of funding through charities to terrorists. There's been an incredible amount written and attention put out on this. That's a deterrent to those who want to fund terrorism." http://www.dallasnews.com/sharedcontent/dws/news/localnews/stories/112508dnmetholylandverdicts.1e5022504.html
Holy Land investigation dates back to 1993
07:00 AM CST on Tuesday, November 25, 2008
By JASON TRAHAN / The Dallas Morning News
The Holy Land Foundation first came to the attention of U.S. authorities 15 years ago, when an Illinois man detained in Israel told his interrogators that the largest American Muslim charity was really a front for Palestinian terrorists.
The year was 1993, and Holy Land, started a few years earlier as the Occupied Land Fund, had just relocated from California to Richardson.
Holy Land's founders, all of whom were either born in the Palestinian territories or spent time there growing up, made it their mission to help poor and war-stricken Palestinian families devastated by the Arab-Israeli conflict.
Or that's what was printed on their pamphlets.
Muhammad Salah, a Palestinian-born Illinois businessman, described the charity differently.
Although he would later claim he was tortured into talking, he told Israeli agents in 1993 that Holy Land was the chief fundraising arm of the then-6-year-old Islamic Resistance Movement, better known as Hamas which sponsored suicide bombings targeting Israelis in protest of their occupation of Palestine.
He said Holy Land was so designated by a powerful and politically savvy Palestinian immigrant living in the U.S. named Mousa Abu Marzook.
Investigators would later learn that Mr. Marzook, a doctoral student at Louisiana Tech University, was actually the head of Hamas and helped start Holy Land with hundreds of thousands of dollars in seed money. He also was married to a cousin of Ghassan Elashi, Holy Land's board chairman and one of its founders.
Mr. Salah was acquitted last year on charges that he supported Hamas, but was sent to prison for lying about his terrorist ties in a civil suit. It was his initial tip that prompted the FBI to open an intelligence investigation on Holy Land.
While monitoring Salah's phone calls, the FBI learned of a meeting in October 1993 at a Philadelphia hotel between Holy Land organizers and other Hamas sympathizers. The FBI recorded the participants talking about how to continue to raise money for Hamas without drawing the attention of U.S. authorities.
By late 1994, Mr. Salah's information began to leak out and was the basis for national television news accounts linking Holy Land to Hamas.
The Dallas Morning News also began an investigation of the group and wrote stories uncovering ties between Holy Land and Hamas activists. Muslim groups were outraged and denied the links. They organized protests at the newspaper's downtown Dallas offices. Meanwhile, investigators were learning that Holy Land was flying in militant clerics, many with Hamas ties, to headline U.S. fundraisers. Those gatherings often featured calls for violent jihad, or holy war, against Israelis.
Investigators estimated that Holy Land raised more than $57 million between 1992 and 2001.
For years, U.S. authorities focused on using Holy Land to gather intelligence, rather than launching a criminal case to shut it down. At the time, before the Sept. 11 attacks, the FBI was under much less pressure to make terrorism arrests, and there was a great reluctance to use evidence gathered during an intelligence operation in a criminal case.
In 1996, the Israelis closed Holy Land's Jerusalem office, and they pressured the U.S. to do the same to its Texas headquarters. American authorities declined to move against the charity, even though a 1995 presidential order made it a crime for anyone inside the U.S. to send money or support to Hamas.
Around 1997, the Commerce Department learned that a Richardson-based Internet service provider and computer services firm had contacted Saddam Hussein's government about setting up the ".iq" domain name. It was never activated, but by 1999, investigators began to suspect that the firm had been violating export laws by doing business with customers in Syria and Libya, both of which the U.S. considered state sponsors of terrorism.
The firm was InfoCom, run by Mr. Elashi's family and also the beneficiary of Mr. Marzook's money. InfoCom and Holy Land were located across the street from each other in Richardson.
Investigators would work the InfoCom export law case for another two years all the while continuing to monitor Holy Land before a federal terrorism task force moved in on Sept. 5, 2001, and shut the company down.
In the wake of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, agents were able to pull together eight years of intelligence and evidence on Holy Land and prepare warrants to search the charity's offices and seize its assets.
In December 2001, President George W. Bush announced at a Rose Garden news conference that Holy Land was shut down.
Holy Land and seven of its former officers and volunteers were indicted in July 2004 on charges that they funneled money to Hamas.
Authorities believed that between 1995, when supporting Hamas became a crime, and its closing, Holy Land sent more than $12 million to charity groups under Hamas control.
The first trial of five of the defendants two are fugitives ended after 19 days of deliberations. U.S. District Judge A. Joe Fish declared a mistrial on Oct. 22, 2007.
Over the next 11 months, prosecutors re-tooled their case, adding more learning aids and witnesses while cutting down the amount of admitted evidence.
Opening statements in the re-trial began Sept. 22. Jurors began deliberating Nov. 12. http://www.dallasnews.com/sharedcontent/dws/news/nation/stories/112508dnmetholylandsider.1e5f90015.html