By Robert Barnes
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, July 25, 2007
Federal prosecutors opened their case yesterday against what was once the nation's largest Islamic charity, arguing in a Dallas courtroom that the organization funneled at least $12 million to Palestinian militants.
The Texas-based Holy Land Foundation was shut down by President Bush three months after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. It is accused of knowing that the money it sent to charities in the Middle East benefited Hamas, the militant Palestinian group officially designated as a terrorist organization by the U.S. government. Administration officials say the trial is an important battle in the fight to cut off funding to terrorists.
But the case is also drawing intense scrutiny in the American Muslim community because of a listing of 300 individuals and groups named in the indictment as unindicted co-conspirators, including established organizations such as the Council on American-Islamic Relations.
Parvez Ahmed, chairman of CAIR's national board, called the unusual list a "broad smear" and added, "We're being accused of something, but what we're being accused of, I don't know."
Prosecutors told jurors yesterday that the foundation and five organizers -- all but one are U.S. citizens -- sent at least $12 million to "zakat" committees controlled by Hamas. Zakat is a required form of the charitable giving that is one of the pillars of Islam.
The indictment charges that the foundation in part directed the money to take care of the families of suicide bombers, an action to "effectively reward past, and encourage future, suicide bombings and terrorist activities."
Assistant U.S. Attorney James Jacks said the 14-year investigation of the group revealed defendants phoning one another to describe Hamas suicide bombing attacks as "beautiful operations." He said the foundation and defendants shared Hamas's goal of the destruction of Israel. One of the men participated in a skit at a fundraiser that purported to show a Palestinian killing an Israeli, he said.
The organization's leaders lied about their real purpose "because to tell the truth would reveal what they were all about -- the destruction of the state of Israel and replacing it with a Palestinian Islamic state," Jacks said, the Associated Press reported.
But defense attorney Nancy Hollander said the foundation and the men on trial did nothing more than contribute money to charities, none of which are marked as terrorist organizations by the U.S. government.
"Holy Land had nothing to do with politics," said Hollander, the AP reported. "Its focus was on children in need." Hollander represents Shukri Abu Baker, who is on trial along with Mohammed El-Mezain, Mufid Abdulqader, Ghassan Elashi and Abdulraham Odeh.
Prosecutors have told the court it will take at least three months to present the complicated case. It relies on a mountain of documents, years of intercepted phone conversations, information from Israeli intelligence agencies and disputed transcripts that contain conversations translated from Arabic to Hebrew to English.
Judge A. Joe Fish has said he will allow two Israeli agents to testify in a closed courtroom with their identities concealed.
"It's an extremely important case for the government to win," said Dennis M. Lormel, a former Justice Department official who created the FBI's Terrorist Financing Operations Section. But he added that it is also "a very complex case, and a difficult case to bring."
The government has had mixed success in such prosecutions. A jury in Illinois acquitted a defendant accused of funneling money to militants overseas, and a Florida college professor who had long been a target of federal prosecutors was found not guilty of terrorism-related charges.
But a Georgia imam pleaded guilty last fall to supporting Hamas with donations passed through the Holy Land Foundation; Mohamed Shorbagi is on the witness list in the Dallas case. And one of the Holy Land defendants has already been convicted on separate charges of supplying computers to Syria and Libya.
Even without convictions, Lormel said, the government's actions have had a "chilling effect" on the kind of contributions that he believes are going to aid Hamas and others. "In the long run, the government has taken major steps in stopping the flow of money to terrorists," he said.
Lormel said he could not speculate on prosecutors' reasons for the list of unindicted co-conspirators and acknowledged that it has resulted in accusations that "the Islamic community is being picked on." But he said Muslim leaders do a "disservice" to their community to not acknowledge the Holy Land Foundation's ties to Hamas.
Muneer Fareed, secretary general of the Islamic Society of North America, said his organization's inclusion on the list of 300 unindicted co-conspirators is "perplexing and somewhat disappointing" and said it harms the goal of ensuring that charitable giving goes to the right organizations.
"How do we build trust and work with law enforcement when there is this cloud hanging over our heads?" he asked.
CAIR's Ahmed added, "What is the crime?" He said the foundation's contributions "went to charities -- all approved charities -- and at least one of them has received aid from the U.S. government."
The ACLU and some nonprofit organizations have objected to what they called in a June letter "the Department of Treasury's continued unfounded allegation that charities are a 'significant source of alleged terrorist activities.' "
But the Bush administration moved yesterday against two other charities -- the Martyrs Foundation and Goodwill Charitable Organization of Dearborn, Mich. -- for allegedly providing support to the terrorist group Hezbollah.
"We will not allow organizations that support terrorism to raise money in the United States," said Stuart Levey, the Treasury Department's undersecretary for terrorism and financial intelligence.
Research editor Alice Crites contributed to this report.