Terrorism Financing Case Gets 2nd Trial
Sunday, September 21, 2008
The government's largest terrorism financing case returned to a courtroom in Dallas this week as prosecutors once again try to secure criminal convictions against five men for allegedly raising more than $12 million in what investigators call "blood money" to support overseas suicide bombings.
The case against former leaders of the Holy Land Foundation, a Texas charity that authorities shuttered seven years ago because of its alleged links to the militant Palestinian group Hamas, comes nearly a year after a previous trial ended in disappointment for the government. Jurors acquitted one man outright on 31 charges and deadlocked on charges against the others. Senior U.S. District Judge A. Joe Fish declared a mistrial in October 2007.
The turbulent jury deliberations ignited debate about the strength of the government's evidence and its pursuit of financiers who back terrorist groups. In the years since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, authorities increasingly have accused suspects of providing "material support" to hostile groups, but the Justice Department's trial record in such cases has been mixed.
Federal prosecutors last month moved to streamline the case, dismissing 29 charges apiece against two key defendants and training their fire on counts of conspiracy to fund terrorism and conspiracy to commit money laundering. Opening arguments begin Monday.
Formerly the largest Muslim charitable organization in the United States, the Holy Land Foundation "masqueraded as a charity" but really served to fund Hamas, according to Treasury and Justice Department officials.
In attacking the government's case during the first trial, the defense asserted that the "zakat" committees that received money from Holy Land were not controlled by Hamas at the time of the donations. In fact, they offered evidence to show that the committees were licensed by the Palestinian Authority, an enemy of Hamas, and regularly reviewed by Israeli officials during the time covered by the indictment.
As Greg Westphall, an attorney for one of the defendants, put it in his closing argument, "Fact: Holy Land Foundation gave money to zakat committees. Speculation: The money went to buy guns, money went to buy bombs, bullets. There is not a shred of evidence to show that."
In addition, the defense sharply criticized the testimony of a government expert witness, an Israeli intelligence analyst who appeared under the pseudonym "Mr. Avi." For their part, defense attorneys used Edward Abington, a former CIA and State Department official who was consul general in Jerusalem and later a lobbyist for the Palestinian Authority; Nathan Brown, a political science and international affairs professor at George Washington University; and former congressman John Bryant (D-Tex.), who served as Holy Land's lobbyist for three years.
Brown, who speaks Arabic and specializes in Arab charities, visited several of the zakat committees and taught at an Israeli university. He questioned whether "Avi," who based his views on seized Holy Land documents, understood the workings of the zakats. "These zakat committees are not administrative-heavy groups. Their job is to collect money, certify need and give it out," Brown testified during last year's trial.
Although the government wiretapped Holy Land defendants over a 10-year period, that yielded almost no direct evidence to support the case, an issue raised often by defense lawyers.
U.S. authorities designated Hamas as a terrorist group in 1995 and are actively investigating people with ties to the organization. Last month, authorities in Arizona charged a Phoenix man with lying to the FBI last year about his fundraising efforts on behalf of Hamas.
National security experts are watching the retrial as a possible bellwether for government efforts to hold accountable the people who raise money for overseas terrorism operations.
"This is about those who give money to Hamas, not about persons thought to be terrorists themselves," said Wake Forest University law professor Robert Chesney, who tracks such prosecutions.
Lawyers for the government and the defendants declined to comment, citing a gag order imposed by the judge.