By Peter Whoriskey
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, September 19, 2007
DALLAS, Sept. 18 -- The leaders of what was once the nation's largest Islamic charity did sometimes sympathize with the anger, and even the actions, of extremists.
In one wiretapped call played at their trial here, one of the men describes a suicide bombing near Tel Aviv as a "beautiful operation." The group also invited guest speakers identified by prosecutors as leaders of the militant Palestinian group Hamas to appear at fundraisers.
But as the two-month terrorism-financing trial of the five officials of the Holy Land Foundation for Relief and Development drew to a close here Tuesday, defense attorneys accused the government of trying to obtain a conviction based on the men's political sympathies rather than on any evidence of crimes.
"Association, association, association -- that's what the government wants you to convict them on," defense attorney Joshua L. Dratel said to jurors in closing arguments.
The trial of the five men, who are accused of sending more than $12 million overseas to charity organizations controlled by Hamas, is viewed as a test of the Bush administration's anti-terrorism policies. The defendants face counts of conspiracy to provide material support to a terrorist organization, providing material support to a terrorist organization, conspiracy to launder money and other charges.
The aggressive efforts against the Holy Land Foundation began in December 2001, three months after the Sept. 11 attacks, when President Bush froze its assets.
But some Muslim advocates have criticized the prosecution of the Holy Land officials as an act of bias against Muslims and Palestinians in the United States. More than 300 individuals and organizations, some of them high-profile groups such as the Islamic Society of North America and the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), have been named as unindicted co-conspirators in the case.
CAIR petitioned the court to be removed from the list of unindicted co-conspirators. The judge has not ruled on that request.
While both sides have warned jurors that they need not decide who is right and who is wrong in the Israeli-Palestinian divide in order to reach a verdict, the trial has been fraught with that conflict's tensions.
The central issue at trial is whether the Palestinian charities funded by the Holy Land Foundation were, in fact, controlled by Hamas, as Assistant U.S. Attorney Barry Jonas asserted in closing arguments. The United States designated Hamas a terrorist group in 1995.
They were "designed to win the hearts and minds of the people" for Hamas and "targeted" money for the families of militants who were killed, he said.
One of the most important government witnesses to support this contention was an officer with Shin Bet, Israel's domestic security agency.
Identified only as "Avi," he testified that Holy Land had been part of an international fundraising network for Hamas and that the Palestinian charities, or "zakat committees," that Holy Land contributed to were part of the Hamas organization.
A lawyer in Shin Bet's counterterrorism section, "Avi" testified that most of Hamas's money "is coming from outside the territories [the West Bank and Gaza], from nongovernmental organizations overseas," particularly the United States, Europe, the Gulf countries and North Africa.
But defense attorneys have suggested that as an Israeli he was politically biased and simply wrong to depict the charities in the case as controlled by Hamas. They noted that the "zakat committees" in the case have not been designated by the United States as terrorist organizations.
Moreover, they suggested that the government had relied too heavily on "Avi" and Israeli intelligence to make the case, effectively prosecuting Palestinians based on Israeli grievances.
"That's really where this all comes from," defense attorney Nancy Hollander said in closing arguments.
Much of the evidence at trial has revolved around photographs, wiretaps and videos depicting Holy Land Foundation events.
One video shows a fundraiser in which a skit is performed: An actor said to be depicting Hamas throttles another actor depicting an Israeli.
But the defense has supplied its own set of images to bolster its argument that the Holy Land Foundation was a legitimate charity.
A United Nations document indicates that food assistance declined in the West Bank after Holy Land was closed in 2001. Pictures show the Holy Land Foundation providing relief not just in the West Bank but in Egypt and Jordan.
"You don't go to all these far-flung places as a ruse," defense attorney Greg Westfall told jurors. The foundation, he said, really was in the "helping-people business."