2 Acquitted of Conspiracy in Hamas Trial
Thursday, February 1, 2007; 6:55 PM
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.