The federal government's largest and most aggressive effort to prosecute alleged Hamas financiers in America is to be put to the test beginning today in a Dallas courtroom.
Five officials of what was once one of America's leading Islamic charities, the Holy Land Foundation for Relief and Development, face trial on charges they operated the organization as a fund-raising arm of Hamas, a Palestinian Arab terrorist group responsible for hundreds of killings in Israel, Gaza, and the West Bank.
"This is Hamas on trial," a longtime researcher into the American links of Middle Eastern terrorist groups, Steven Emerson, said yesterday. "I don't think you can get a more significant material support case."
The foundation, its chairman of the board, Ghassan Elashi, its secretary and CEO, Shukri Abu Baker, one of its top fund-raisers, Mufid Abdulqader, its director of endowments, Mohammed El-Mezain, and its New Jersey representative, Abdulraham Odeh, are charged with conspiring to aid a terrorist group, engaging in financial transactions with an embargoed group, money laundering, and other violations. Holy Land was shut down and had its assets frozen in 2001, but the criminal indictment was not returned until 2004.
In the Muslim community, many view the prosecution as driven by pro-Israel political forces and by a form of paranoia they call "Islamophobia."
"The prosecution is trying to criminalize humanitarian aid," the vice president of the Dallas chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, Khalil Meek, said. "The Holy Land Foundation and its associates are not charged with any violence. They actually did feed, clothe, shelter, and provide medical support to humanitarian efforts all over the world."
Prosecutors contend that $12.4 million raised by the foundation between 1995 and 2001 went to charitable committees in Gaza and the West Bank set up to receive tithing, or zakat, from Muslims. The prosecution alleges that the zakat committees were controlled by Hamas and sometimes singled out the families of Hamas "martyrs" for assistance.
"The government's case is pretty strong in terms of … deliberately providing annuities to the families of suicide bombers," Mr. Emerson said.
Mr. Meek said the defendants are expected to argue that aiding orphans, no matter who their parents were, cannot amount to support for terrorism. "When you say, ‘They are accused of feeding the wrong children,' that doesn't resonate," he said.
Prosecutors have conceded that they face an uphill battle to convince jurors that charity can be vital to a terrorist group. In a recent court filing, the government acknowledged that its case depends on "the counterintuitive notion that ‘charitable' committees and ostensibly benevolent organizations could be so integral and important to a terrorist organization."
After the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, the government reopened or reinvigorated inquiries into a series of groups and individuals suspected of aiding radical Islamic causes abroad. While prosecutors were successful in some cases, two major prosecutions faltered in the courtroom.
In 2005, a six-month trial of a former Florida college professor accused of ties to Palestinian Islamic Jihad, Sami Al-Arian, ended with an acquittal on eight counts and a hung jury on nine others. Al-Arian later made a deal with prosecutors and pleaded guilty to one count of assisting a terrorist group.
Earlier this year, a trial in Chicago of two men accused of running a Hamas "terrorist-recruiting and financing cell" ended with the defendants, Muhammad Salah and Abdelhaleem Ashqar, acquitted on racketeering conspiracy charges and convicted only of obstruction of justice.
The mixed record increases the pressure on prosecutors in the Holy Land case. "In light of the fact that the government has not succeeded as planned in the two previous cases, the stakes are even higher," Mr. Emerson said.
The changing status of Hamas in the Middle East and in America could complicate the trial. Holy Land was organized in 1988 as the Occupied Land Fund, but America did not specifically ban donations to Hamas until 1995. In addition, since the indictment, Hamas has become a potent political force, winning a majority in Palestinian Arab elections last year and seizing control of Gaza just last month.
A group formed by supporters of the defendants, Hungry for Justice, plans to send bloggers each day to cover the trial proceedings, which could last five months or more.
On Friday, Judge Allen Joe Fish imposed what amounts to a gag order on the lawyers in the case. "The court will not tolerate any attempts to have this case tried in the media," the judge wrote.
In another late development, one of the key defendants, Elashi, retained a lawyer with noteworthy experience in a high-profile criminal trial, John Cline of San Francisco. He was part of the defense team for a former White House aide, I. Lewis Libby Jr., who was convicted in March of obstruction of justice in the CIA leak investigation.
Elashi is presently serving a sentence of more than six years in federal prison after being convicted in a separate case of violating American embargoes on Libya and Syria, as well as sending money to a Hamas leader who is one of his cousins, Mousa Abu Marzook.
While the other defendants have court-appointed lawyers, Elashi's defense is being paid for by a Texas charity, the Muslim Legal Fund. Mr. Meek, who serves as the group's president, declined to say how much the group has raised or spent on Elashi's legal bills. The legal fund raised about $435,000 in 2005, according to federal records.
The Council on American-Islamic Relations has ample reason to be concerned about the Holy Land case: Elashi was a founder of CAIR's Texas chapter. In addition, prosecutors have named the group as an unindicted co-conspirator in the case.
"Unindicted coconspirators have no due process," Mr. Meek said. "It demonstrates the political nature of the case."
Several of the defense lawyers in the Holy Land trial have dealt with terrorism-related issues in previous cases. Mr. Cline, who is with a Cleveland-based firm, Jones Day, and a lawyer for Mr. Abu Baker, Nancy Hollander, represented the Holy Land Foundation in an unsuccessful civil lawsuit seeking to challenge the freeze placed on the foundation's assets.
Elashi's other attorney, Linda Moreno, represented Al-Arian, the Florida professor, at his trial.
In addition, a Manhattan defense lawyer representing Mr. El-Mezain, Joshua Dratel, is defending an Australian man imprisoned at Guantanamo Bay, David Hicks, and worked on a case stemming from the bombings of the American embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998.