Two Men Acquitted of Conspiracy To Fund Hamas Activities in Israel

Muhammad Salah leaves court in Chicago after being acquitted of racketeering charges.
Muhammad Salah leaves court in Chicago after being acquitted of racketeering charges. (By Charles Rex Arbogast -- Associated Press)
By Dan Eggen
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, February 2, 2007

A federal jury in Chicago acquitted two men yesterday of charges that they were part of a long-running conspiracy to finance Hamas activities in Israel -- marking the latest defeat for the Justice Department in cases involving support for radical Palestinian groups.

Abdelhaleem Ashqar, 48, a former Howard University professor who lives in Springfield, and Muhammad Salah, 53, a former grocer from suburban Chicago, were found not guilty of racketeering conspiracy. The charge was the most serious allegation against them and could have drawn life sentences for each.

But the two men were found guilty of lesser charges: Ashqar was convicted of obstruction of justice and criminal contempt for refusing to testify in front of a grand jury, while Salah was convicted of obstruction for providing false answers in a civil lawsuit.

The case provides the latest example of the serious difficulties faced by the Justice Department in its attempts to prosecute supporters of radical Palestinian organizations. In the Chicago case, prosecutors faced the additional challenge of trying to punish activities that occurred before Hamas was declared a terrorist organization by the U.S. government in 1995.

Salah, a U.S. citizen, was accused of helping funnel hundreds of thousands of dollars to militant groups in the West Bank and Gaza. He was captured by the Israelis with $100,000 in cash in 1993 and allegedly confessed to being a military commander in Hamas. Ashqar was alleged to have helped launder money and facilitate communications for Hamas.

Neither man denied that he helped move money for Palestinian causes. But both said what they did was aimed at helping the Palestinian people and not to promote terrorism. In addition, Salah said his confession was the result of torture by Israeli officials.

In Chicago yesterday, the defendants and their attorneys immediately characterized the verdicts as a victory and said they showed that the government had overreached by trying to punish legitimate opposition to Israeli policies.

"It was better than we thought," a tearful Salah told reporters in Chicago. "We are good people, not terrorists."

Salah's attorney, Michael Deutsch, called the verdict "a tremendous victory" and said his client "may not even go to prison at all."

"This rejects the idea we can criminalize someone for resisting an illegal occupation in another country," Deutsch said.

The Justice Department in Washington declined to comment. First Assistant U.S. Attorney Gary S. Shapiro told reporters in Chicago: "We've convicted them. It's hard to say that we're disappointed."

The prosecution of Ashqar and Salah was deemed so important to the Justice Department that the 2004 indictments were announced in a news conference by then-Attorney General John D. Ashcroft. But the outcome of the three-month trial is decidedly mixed.

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