Mistrial Declared in Islamic Charity Case

By Peter Whoriskey
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, October 23, 2007

MIAMI, Oct. 22 -- The trial against what was once the nation's largest Islamic charity ended in a mistrial Monday as federal prosecutors in Dallas were unable to gain a conviction on charges that the group's leaders had funneled millions of dollars to Mideast terrorists.

The jurors in the high-profile case acquitted Mohammad el-Mezain, the former chairman of the Holy Land Foundation for Relief and Development, on virtually all the charges brought against him and deadlocked on the other charges that had been lodged against four other former leaders of the charity.

Monday's developments were a setback for the Bush administration, which had frozen the group's finances three months after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and indicted its officials three years later on charges that they provided funds in support of Hamas, a militant Palestinian group that the United States considers a terrorist organization.

During the trial, the government did not argue that Holy Land directly supported terrorist groups. Instead, prosecutors asserted that the charity provided money to committees in the West Bank and Gaza that were controlled by Hamas and, in doing so, created goodwill toward the militant organization, helping it recruit members.

But at least some of the jurors apparently did not see strong links between the charity and terrorists.

Juror William Neal told the Associated Press that the panel found little evidence against Mezain, Mufid Abdulqader, a top fundraiser for Holy Land, and Abdulrahman Odeh, the group's New Jersey representative. It was evenly split on charges against Shukri Abu Baker, the charity's former chief executive, and former Holy Land chairman Ghassan Elashi, who were seen as Holy Land's principal leaders.

"I thought they were not guilty across the board," said Neal, 33, an art director from Dallas. The case "was strung together with macaroni noodles. There was so little evidence."

News of the mistrial set off a celebration by the defendants' supporters outside the Dallas federal courthouse where the trial was held. The crowd held some of the defendants aloft and cheered. The lack of convictions showed that at trial facts had triumphed over fear, they said.

"It's a huge sense of relief," said Nihad Awad, executive director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, who was there. "Twelve regular people in the U.S. couldn't be convinced to issue a single guilty verdict. That's a sign of good news that the justice system is working and the campaign of fear is apparently not working."

Under a judge's order, neither the prosecutors nor the defense attorneys were allowed to comment on the trial. Prosecutors said in the courtroom that they would probably retry the charity's leaders.

The FBI had begun to investigate the case as far back as 1993, but it was not until the Sept. 11 attacks that the government decided to move against the group.

David Zaring, a visiting professor at Vanderbilt Law School who has written about the financial aspects of the war on terror, says that the closure of Holy Land and other similar charities and the subsequent inability to convict their operators of financing terrorism raises questions about fairness.

CONTINUED     1        >

© 2007 The Washington Post Company