Magazine article Washington Report on Middle East Affairs

Verdict against Holy Land Charity Could Have Chilling Effect on Muslim Community

Magazine article Washington Report on Middle East Affairs

Verdict against Holy Land Charity Could Have Chilling Effect on Muslim Community

Article excerpt

ON THE AFTERNOON of Monday, Nov. 24, a jury in Dallas, Texas found five Palestinian men guilty of more than 100 charges in the nation's largest terrorism financing trial since 9/11.

But was this case about prosecuting terrorism, or the Bush administration's "war on terror?"

Prosecutors never argued that the charity, the Holy Land Foundation for Relief and Development, or any of its officials were ever involved in violence, either through funding it or directly participating in it. Instead, they told the jury that the charity sent money to schools, hospitals and social welfare programs that were controlled by Hamas, a group listed as a terrorist organization by the U.S. State Department since 1995.

Edward Abington, the former number two intelligence official at the State Department (and ex-U.S. consul in Jerusalem), told jurors he was never told that the Palestinian charity committees supported by Holy Land were part of Hamas in the daily intelligence briefings he received. In fact, these same charities, or "zakat committees," still receive donations from the U.S. Agency for International Development and the International Red Cross.

This was the second trial against Holy Land. Last year, the government's case ended in embarrassment and defeat when jurors returned after 19 days of deliberations with no guilty verdicts. At least one of the defendants would have been completely acquitted had a juror not changed her mind at the eleventh hour, backing out of her decision to acquit when the judge polled the panel about their votes. Another juror later said she refused to discuss the evidence during deliberations, simply explaining that she relied on her "feelings."

The stark differences between the two juries became apparent at the conclusion of the second trial. "Twelve good American citizens in the first trial didn't convict anyone of anything," Linda Moreno, one of the defense attorneys on the case, told the Associated Press. "And 12 good American citizens in the second trial convicted everyone of everything. If you can make sense of that explain it to me." (Ms. Moreno was an attorney for my father, Sami Al-Arian, in his 2005 trial.)

Over fervent objections from the defense, the judge in the Holy Land trial allowed the prosecution to present testimony from an anonymous Israeli intelligence agent. This bizarre episode marked the first time in American legal history that testimony has been allowed from an expert witness with no identity. If the witness, who was introduced to the jury simply as "Avi," lied or committed perjury, he faces no consequences. He is officially non-existent, after all.

Though the prosecution ostensibly limited their case to Palestinian charities operating in the present day, most of the evidence presented to the jury involved the general activities of Hamas, and dated back decades. With its propaganda-like quality, the evidence was clearly intended to provoke an emotional response. For example, jurors were repeatedly shown videos of grisly suicide bombings that none of the defendants were in any way connected to, or accused of planning.

William Neal, who served on the first Holy Land jury, raised disturbing questions about the prosecution's tactics in an interview with Dallas radio station KRLD 1080. "They never proved-they kept trying to show us stuff around the case, not the case. They presented to the jury, you know these committees, these organizations controlled by or on the behalf of Hamas, but they kept showing us blown-up buses and they kept showing us little kids in bomb belts re-enacting Hamas leaders," he said. "It had nothing to do with the actual charges. It had nothing to do with the defendants."

I went to Dallas a week before the verdict to cover the case, and found a group of Holy Land supporters a block away from the federal courthouse where the case was being prosecuted. There, I met Diane Baker, a 62-year-old ordained minister with blonde hair and a rail-thin frame. …

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