Terrorism trial begins this week for Islamic charity
Nearly six years after it shut down the nation’s largest Islamic charity for alleged ties to terrorism, the U.S. government begins the high-stakes prosecution this week of five top officials of the Holy Land Foundation, accused of funneling money to Palestinian militants.
In a 2001 Rose Garden appearance shortly after Sept. 11, President Bush said the charity was among those that “do business with terror.”
Holy Land officials denied claims that the charity sent funds to Hamas, and tried unsuccessfully to force the U.S. to prove it in court. Ironically, the criminal case gives the charity officials -- all but one of whom are U.S. citizens -- their first chance to dispute specific allegations that they supported the terrorist group.
But the trial, with opening arguments scheduled for Tuesday, also turns a political spotlight on the Justice Department, which has had spotty success winning convictions when charging Americans with providing material support to terrorists. This case, shrouded in secrecy and heavily dependent on testimony from foreign agents, comes loaded with unique legal challenges.
The government’s case has drawn special attention from inside and outside the U.S. Muslim community for an indictment that also lists about 300 individuals and groups as unindicted co-conspirators -- among them long-established and U.S.-based organizations engaged in traditional lobbying efforts.
Ibrahim Hooper, a spokesman for the Washington-based Council on American Islamic Relations, one of the groups listed as an unindicted co-conspirator, accused prosecutors of using smears and “McCarthyite tactics.” He called it an “attempt to marginalize and disenfranchise mainstream Muslim groups.”
In response to a similar listing of the 44-year-old Islamic Society of North America, based in Indiana, President Ingrid Mattson issued a statement saying: “ISNA is not now, and never has been, involved in any covert or illegal activity, and has never supported any terrorist organizations.”
Government prosecutors, like defense attorneys, have declined comment about the case outside the courtroom of U.S. District Judge A. Joe Fish.
However, one former federal prosecutor who is not involved in the Texas case expressed surprise at the sweeping use of unindicted co-conspirators. Adam Braun, who recently left the U.S. attorney’s office in Los Angeles for private practice, said, “It seems like the government is painting with a pretty broad brush.”
He said office policy was to avoid “sullying someone’s reputation unnecessarily” -- generally limiting use of named co-conspirators unless there is proof of wrongdoing.
Three other federal prosecutors contacted by The Times were critical of the tactic, calling it “improper” and “unfair.” None would discuss it on the record, because they still work for the Justice Department.
From its founding in Southern California to the December 2001 morning when its four U.S. offices were closed down, records and interviews show, the Holy Land Foundation for Relief and Development raised more than $57 million in donations. More than half the money went to Gaza and the West Bank, according to foundation officials. The rest went to refugees in Lebanon and Jordan and the victims of calamities including the war in Kosovo, according to Holy Land officials.
But in first closing the foundation and now prosecuting its leaders, the U.S. government has long alleged that Holy Land’s real aim was something sinister.
The government’s first action in 2001 was an administrative order freezing, and later seizing, the charity’s funds. Holy Land tried to reverse the order, petitioning a succession of courts to intervene and permit it to challenge the government’s claims. The appeals failed.
The indictment accuses Holy Land officials of supporting Hamas by sending money, goods and services through a network of so-called zakat committees, or local charities, and other organizations controlled by Hamas.
According to federal court records in Dallas, the U.S. government has collected more than 1 million pages of documents and thousands of hours of wiretaps in the Holy Land case. The documents include an FBI report that alleges years of connections between Holy Land officials and Hamas.
But attorneys for Holy Land and the defendants have repeatedly challenged the reliability of the evidence and the government’s handling of the case.
In court papers, defense attorneys have argued that the zakat committees allegedly controlled by Hamas have never been identified by the U.S. government as supporting terrorism or banned from receiving donations.
Attorneys also noted that one allegedly suspect organization overseas received U.S. government aid.
Long ago, attorneys also challenged the accuracy of the FBI memo, whose principal author was a veteran agent banned from appearing before the nation’s top-secret court on surveillance after judges found that he filed inaccurate affidavits.
Court papers show that the Justice Department’s case also relies heavily on Israeli intelligence. Potentially complicating the case, two foreign agents expected to testify against the accused charity officials have demanded to do so anonymously for Israeli security reasons.
Legal experts have cautioned that U.S. prosecutors could face difficulties over these and other differences, including varying standards used in Israel and the U.S. for criminal investigations and gathering evidence.
Defense attorneys also have pointed out striking discrepancies between an official summary and the verbatim transcript of an FBI-wiretapped conversation in 1996 involving Holy Land officials. The summary attributes inflammatory, anti-Semitic comments to Holy Land officials that are not found in a 13-page transcript of the recorded conversation.
The discrepancy echoed earlier defense arguments that the government had repeatedly relied on inaccurate translations or outright misrepresentations to go after Holy Land.
In the disputed FBI memo, for example, one office manager for the foundation was purported to have told Israeli authorities that charitable funds were “channeled to Hamas.”
But defense attorneys told the court that the translation from Arabic to Hebrew to English distorted the official’s original statement, and that he actually said, “We have no connection to Hamas.”