Monday, November 24, 2008

Muslim Charity, Leaders Convicted on Charges of Funding Terror


DALLAS - A Muslim charity and five of its former leaders were convicted Monday of funneling millions of dollars to the Palestinian militant group Hamas, finally handing the government a signature victory in its fight against terrorism funding.

U.S. District Judge Jorge A. Solis announced the guilty verdicts on all 108 counts on the eighth day of deliberations in the retrial of the Holy Land Foundation for Relief and Development, once the nation's largest Muslim charity. It was the biggest terrorism financing case since the attacks of Sept. 11. The convictions follow the collapse of Holy Land's first trial last year and defeats in other cases the government tried to build. President George W. Bush had personally announced the freezing of Holy Land's assets in 2001, calling the action "another step in the war on terrorism."

Ghassan Elashi, Holy Land's former chairman, and Shukri Abu-Baker, the chief executive, were convicted of a combined 69 counts, including supporting a specially designated terrorist, money laundering and tax fraud. Mufid Abdulqader and Abdulrahman Odeh were convicted of three counts of conspiracy, and Mohammed El-Mezain was convicted of one count of conspiracy to support a terrorist organization. Holy Land itself was convicted of all 32 counts.

A sentencing date hasn't been scheduled, but the punishments could be steep. Supporting a terrorist organization carries a maximum 15-year sentence on each count; money laundering carries a maximum 20 years on each conviction. Solis ordered the Holy Land leaders detained, citing the long prison terms they may face and their ties to the Middle East. Holy Land was accused of giving more than $12 million to support Hamas. The seven-week retrial ran about as long as the original, which ended in October 2007 when a judge declared a mistrial on most charges.

The U.S. designated Hamas a terrorist organization in 1995 and again in 1997, making contributions to the group illegal. Government officials raided Holy Land's headquarters in December 2001 and shut it down. Prosecutors labeled Holy Land's benefactors — called zakat committees — as terrorist recruiting pools. The charities, the government argued, spread Hamas' violent ideology and generated loyalty and support among Palestinians.

A chaotic courtroom scene ended last year's original trial, which lasted nearly two months and kept jurors deliberating for 19 days. But they deadlocked on many counts, and when a judge polled the panel about other verdicts, some disavowed their vote. The confusing finish led U.S. District Judge A. Joe Fish to declare a mistrial, and leaders of the defunct charity rushed outside to celebrate.

Observers last year panned the government for presenting a bloated case too complicated for jurors to follow. Prosecutors responded this year by dropping nearly 60 charges in the trial and tightening their narrative to jurors, even offering a kind of road map to help the panel follow the money. Two other high-profile terror-financing trials in Chicago and Florida ended without convictions on the major counts.

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