NEW YORK // The second trial of a Muslim charity and five of its former leaders has found them guilty of funnelling millions of dollars to Hamas in the largest terrorism financing case in the United States since the September 11 attacks. The Texas-based Holy Land Foundation for Relief and Development was accused of giving more than US$12 million (Dh44m) to support Hamas after an earlier trial against the charity collapsed last year.
A jury in Texas on Monday convicted the five defendants and they face 15 years on each count of supporting a terrorist group and 20 years on each count of money laundering. A sentencing date has yet to be announced and the men intend to appeal against the verdict. Critics said the trial highlighted the government's politicisation of humanitarian aid as part of its "war on terror". George W Bush, the US president, personally announced the freezing of Holy Land's assets in 2001 after the United States designated Hamas as a terrorist organisation six years earlier.
The charity's leaders, Ghassan Elashi, Shukri Abu-Baker, Mufid Abdulqader, Abdulrahman Odeh and Mohammad el Mezain, were not accused of directly financing violence or suicide bombings. Rather they were accused of contributing to Hamas after the United States classified it as a terrorist group in 1995. The US case has some parallels in the Middle East, where Israel and Fatah forces loyal to Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian president, have shut down Hamas-linked charities.
Supporters of the Holy Land said the charity was simply trying to deliver aid to victims of the conflict. "If occupation obviously shatters lives while charity builds them and charity feeds children, while occupation kills them, why is a charity organisation - not occupation - paying the price?" said freedometogive.com, a website for the defendants' family and friends. Nancy Hollander, a lawyer for one of the defendants, said the retrial included the anonymous testimony of an expert for the first time.
The first effort by US prosecutors to convict the charity ended in a mistrial in Oct 2007 and was deemed too complicated for the jurors to understand. "Today's verdicts are important milestones in America's efforts against financiers of terrorism," Patrick Rowan, the assistant attorney general for national security, said in a statement. He said the case "demonstrates our resolve to ensure that humanitarian relief efforts are not used as a mechanism to disguise and enable support for terrorist groups".
Lawyers for the Holy Land had hoped their case would be boosted by the supporting testimony of Edward Abington, a former US consul general in Israel and chief envoy to the Palestinian Authority (PA) from 1993 to 1997. He said because he was not permitted to interact with Hamas representatives, he knew exactly where the militant group exerted influence. Mr Abington said he was never told in his daily US government briefings that Hamas controlled zakat committees or charity groups. He said Holy Land had a good reputation as efficient aid suppliers, while some zakat committees received donations from the US Agency for International Development.
But on cross-examination, Jim Jacks, a prosecutor, said Mr Abington's objectivity was in doubt because he became a paid lobbyist for the PA after leaving the US government service. After showing evidence that Hamas members served on zakat committees, Mr Abington said there was a difference between Hamas being involved in aid and directly controlling it. Political analysts said the US case and others like it deal with murky areas of international law, which allows for legitimate struggle against occupation but not violence against civilians. They expect more controversial legal actions before the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is finally resolved.
The Palestine Liberation Organisation, of which Hamas is not a member, is facing a US legal action from the family of an American killed in attack in Israel in 2006. The PLO and Fatah, which have received funds from the US, face paying millions of dollars under a law that allows US victims of international terrorism to sue for damages in federal court. firstname.lastname@example.org