US jury mulls charity terror case

November 12, 2008 12:00 am

, DALLAS, November 12 – A Texas jury was to begin deliberations Wednesday in the re-trial of a Muslim charity accused of being a front for Palestinian militants, in the largest terrorism financing prosecution in American history.

The major "war on terror" case, which ended in a mistrial last year, involves the now defunct Texas-based Holy Land Foundation in Dallas, charged with funnelling more than 12 million dollars to Hamas.

The United States Justice Department vowed in October 2007 to retry the five former charity organizers in the Holy Land case, after jurors could not agree on verdicts on nearly 200 charges, and a new jury was seated in mid-September.

Over the past two months, the government has presented largely the same evidence, hoping to prove that Holy Land was created in the late 1980s to gather donations from deep-pocketed American Muslims to support the then-newly formed Hamas movement resisting the Israeli occupation.

Closing arguments in the re-trial wrapped up Tuesday afternoon in Dallas.

Defence attorneys say the charity did not support Hamas and operated legally to get much-needed aid to Palestinians living in squalor under the Israeli occupation.

Government prosecutors allege the foundation raised more than 12 million dollars for Hamas, but they do not accuse the charity of directly financing or being involved in terrorist activity.

Instead prosecutors say humanitarian aid was used to promote Hamas — a multi-faceted Islamist political, social and armed movement which now controls the Gaza Strip — and allow it to divert existing funds to militant activities.

"Hamas views the US as a cash cow," prosecutor Barry Jonas told jurors in closing arguments this week. "We should not want our country used as a support system for terrorists. Hamas exploits US law that encourages people to give to charity."

Defence attorneys say the chief reasons their clients are on trial are family ties.

Khaled Meshaal, Hamas’ political leader in Syria, is the brother of defendant Mufid Abdulqader, a member of a Palestinian band that played at Holy Land fundraisers.

Meshaal’s deputy, Mousa Abu Marzook, is a cousin of defendant Mohammad el-Mezain, a foundation co-founder, and is married to the cousin of defendant Ghassan Elashi, former Holy Land board chairman.

The brother of defendant Shukri Abu Baker, former Holy Land chief executive officer, is Jamal Issa, former Hamas leader in Sudan and its current head in Yemen.

A fifth defendant is Abdulrahman Odeh, Holy Land’s New Jersey representative.

"For those who have been impoverished by politics and history and failed leadership, for all those generations of refugees that he helped feed and clothe and educate, Ghassan Elashi does not apologize for serving them," said attorney Linda Moreno.

"He knew the work of the Holy Land Foundation attracted enemies."

Defence attorneys also criticized the testimony of two Israeli officials, whom the American prosecutors relied on to help them prove that Holy Land’s money benefited Hamas, as biased. Both Israelis testified under pseudonyms for security purposes, which defense attorneys said further eroded their credibility.

Holy Land was America’s largest Muslim charity before it was shut down three months after the September 11, 2001 attacks on New York. It is one of several Muslim organizations the Bush administration closed for allegedly raising money for overseas Islamic extremists.

Muslim charities that remain open have reported significant drop-offs in contributions because of fears of prosecution.

In two other high-profile cases in Florida and Chicago, charges of support of Palestinian militants have ended in acquittals or convictions on lesser charges.

The American Civil Libertienes Union has said the case highlights serious flaws in terror financing laws which are too broad and effectively criminalize guilt by association.



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