By Carrie Johnson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, November 25, 2008
A federal jury in Dallas convicted five men with ties to a prominent Muslim charity of scores of criminal charges yesterday, handing the U.S. government a significant victory in its largest terrorism financing trial.
The verdicts against former leaders of the Texas-based Holy Land Foundation for Relief and Development, once ranked as the country's largest Muslim charitable organization, came only hours after a federal appeals court panel in New York upheld criminal convictions of three men accused of helping plot deadly bombings of two U.S. embassies in Africa.
Together, the developments strengthened the Justice Department's power to choke the sources of funding that help fuel terrorist schemes -- and to use warrantless electronic surveillance to monitor the activities of U.S. citizens suspected of engaging in international conspiracies.
Yet the victories in cases first filed as long as a decade ago underscore the lengthy path through the criminal justice system, which has afforded the government a mixed record in terrorism prosecutions.
Dennis M. Lormel, a former chief of the FBI's terrorist financing operation section, said the guilty verdicts on the 108 charges in the Holy Land trial amounted to a "validation" of the government's approach and encouraged his former colleagues to aggressively pursue similar investigations.
But Lormel said the most critical, practical development may have come in December 2001, when authorities raided the charity's headquarters in Richardson, Tex., and seized its assets.
After the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, law enforcement officials accused Holy Land of funneling more than $12 million to the militant Palestinian group Hamas. The original case against Holy Land and its leaders included more than 100 unindicted co-conspirators, a status that several charities challenged as overreaching by the government.
"For many years, the Holy Land Foundation used the guise of charity to raise and funnel millions of dollars to the infrastructure of the Hamas terror organization," said J. Patrick Rowan, assistant attorney general for national security. "This prosecution demonstrates our resolve to ensure that humanitarian relief efforts are not used as a mechanism to disguise and enable support for terrorist groups."
In the course of the trial, defense attorneys argued that prosecutors had wrongfully targeted philanthropically minded people who wanted to support schools and hospitals in Palestinian territories devastated by conflict with Israel. They drew in part on arguments by civil liberties advocates, who maintain that prosecutors sometimes exploit laws designed to crack down on material support to terrorists to criminalize activities protected by the First Amendment.
The Holy Land verdicts come a year after the first case dissolved in a mistrial. The government's record in prosecutions involving the material support of terrorist networks has been checkered, as questions have arisen about the proper use of informants and whether authorities arrested suspects without enough evidence.
This time around, after enduring months of second-guessing after the Holy Land mistrial, government lawyers pared their evidence and limited the number of witnesses they presented to the jury, which deliberated for eight days.
Earlier yesterday, the convictions of three men with ties to al-Qaeda were upheld in New York. They were convicted for their roles in the 1998 bombings of embassy buildings in Kenya and Tanzania. The plots killed 224 people, including a dozen Americans, and injured thousands.
The panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 2nd Circuit, led by Judge José A. Cabranes, unanimously rejected defense claims of insufficient evidence and violations of the Classified Information Procedures Act. Cabranes was joined by Judges Jon O. Newman and Wilfred Feinberg.
The defendants, Mohammed Saddiq Odeh, Mohamed Rashed Daoud al-Owhali and Wadih el-Hage, are serving lengthy prison sentences in a supermax prison facility in Colorado. They were convicted in 2001.
Attorneys for Hage, who had been a close associate of al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden, asserted that government investigators improperly collected evidence through wiretaps of his land-based and cellular phones from August 1996 to August 1997. They also argued that federal agents did not secure appropriate warrants to search his apartment in Nairobi. Because Hage is a naturalized U.S. citizen, the defense said, the government should have sought court permission before taking such intrusive steps.
The appeals court panel disagreed, ruling that "we see no merit in this challenge" and finding that the search was "reasonable under the circumstances presented here."
In a conclusion that legal experts say could have implications for other challenges to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, the panel ruled that U.S. courts could admit evidence obtained through warrantless overseas searches of American citizens, but that the searches must be reasonable under the Fourth Amendment.
"The decision of the Court of Appeals . . . is one further measure of justice for the victims of those attacks," U.S. Attorney Michael J. Garcia said.
Staff researcher Julie Tate contributed to this report.