dallas -- Rebuffing defense arguments, a federal judge on Monday agreed that an Israeli intelligence officer can testify anonymously and in a closed courtroom in the trial of five men accused of funneling money to the radical Islamic group Hamas through a now-shuttered Muslim charity in the United States.
The decision by U.S. District Judge A. Joe Fish came at the close of a contentious day during which defense attorneys twice sought a mistrial, arguing that the judge’s rulings for the government had seriously damaged their ability to defend their clients.
The trial, now in its fourth week, centers on allegations that the Holy Land Foundation for Relief and Development, founded in Los Angeles, funneled millions of dollars to overseas charities controlled by Hamas. The foundation, once the largest Muslim charity in the country, was closed by the U.S. Treasury Department in December 2001.
On Monday, defense attorneys continued their cross-examination of FBI Agent Laura Burns, one of the bureau’s lead investigators in the case. They attempted to illustrate that the seven-year-veteran had overlooked Holy Land’s charitable work in pursuit of her theory that the foundation was a terrorist front.
But when Fish refused to allow attorney Nancy Hollander to show the jury photographs of the goods and supplies Holy Land had provided to homeless Palestinians, the defense attorney asked for a mistrial.
After a morning recess, the lawyer for another defendant voiced similar frustration when the judge would not allow him to question the FBI agent about some of the evidence she relied on in her investigation. Attorney Joshua Dratel said the questioning was necessary to show the agent and the government did not verify the accuracy of statements and FBI summaries compiled in the case.
“Your honor, you have essentially eviscerated the cross-examination,” Dratel said.
Later, for the second time in recent days, Fish closed the courtroom to all but attorneys in the case and the families of the defendants so he could conduct a hearing on whether to permit an officer with Israel’s security agency to serve as an expert witness for the government.
With the press and other spectators listening to the man’s testimony via a closed circuit television that showed only part of Fish’s courtroom, the Israeli official, identified only as Avi, testified that he served four years in the Israeli military and has been with that government’s equivalent of the FBI since 1998. For the last two years, he said, he has been the legal advisor to Israel’s counter-terrorism division.
Federal prosecutors have called Avi as an expert witness to testify about connections between Hamas and the so-called zakat charities overseas that received money from Holy Land.
Holy Land officials have long maintained that they did not provide money to Hamas and that if any money did make its way from the zakat committees, it was without their knowledge. They also have noted that although Hamas had been designated a terrorist organization by the U.S. since 1995, none of the zakat committees have similarly been identified by the government as terrorist fronts.
But in his brief appearance, Avi gave a glimpse of his anticipated testimony this week, telling the court that he views the zakat committees as more than just controlled by Hamas.
“I am talking about committees being part of Hamas,” he said.