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.
In December 2005, a jury in Florida acquitted former computer professor Sami al-Arian of eight terrorism charges and deadlocked on nine others. Arian eventually pleaded guilty to supporting members of the Palestinian Islamic Jihad and is slated to be deported after finishing a short prison term.
One of Arian's attorneys, William Moffit, also represented Ashqar in Chicago.
The case was prosecuted by the office of U.S. Attorney Patrick J. Fitzgerald, who is in the spotlight as the special counsel in the trial of I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby, Vice President Cheney's former chief of staff.
The Hamas prosecution also featured another central player in the Libby saga: former New York Times reporter Judith Miller, who testified on behalf of prosecutors in Chicago about an Israeli interrogation session with Salah that she witnessed in the early 1990s.
Salah and his attorney argued that much of the evidence against him, including a confession, should be disregarded because it was obtained under torture when he was in Israeli custody. Miller testified that she saw no evidence of mistreatment when she witnessed an interrogation of Salah and -- in an unprecedented twist for a U.S. courtroom -- two Israeli interrogators testified under aliases that Salah was treated well.
Prosecutors also presented recorded conversations in which Ashqar discussed violent operations by Hamas. But Moffit said his client was never recorded planning any attacks or recruiting anyone to carry them out.
One other defendant remains under indictment in the case: Mousa Abu Marzook, Hamas's deputy political bureau chief, who was deported from the United States in 1997 and is now a fugitive living in Damascus, Syria.
Staff writer Kari Lydersen in Chicago and staff researcher Julie Tate in Washington contributed to this report.