Accusations of deception traded in terror trial

Times Staff Writer

Federal prosecutors mounted their final courtroom assault on former officials of a defunct Islamic charity on Monday, arguing that the Holy Land Foundation for Relief and Development funneled millions of dollars to support terrorists in the guise of helping needy Palestinian families.

“For 13 years, the defendants deceived the American public into believing” Holy Land was “a good charity,” Assistant U.S. Atty. Barry Jonas told jurors here. But, he said, the organization was a fundraising front for Hamas and for terrorist activities that helped “create widows and orphans” rather than coming to their aid.

Defense attorney Nancy Hollander attacked that argument, complaining about inaccurate FBI translations and questioning the testimony of Israeli secret agents. She accused the government of using faulty evidence, biased witnesses and playing on the public’s fear of terrorism.


“Who’s being deceptive here?” she said, referring to the government.

A crowd packed the courtroom gallery Monday, anticipating the final moments of the Justice Department’s biggest terrorism finance case. Closing arguments are expected to continue into Wednesday before the case goes to the jury.

The five former foundation officials -- four of them U.S. citizens -- are charged with providing material support to terrorists. The government says the support included contributions totaling about $12 million to fronts for Hamas.

In December 2001, an executive order forced Holy Land to close. President Bush accused it of financing terrorism. At the time, the foundation was the nation’s largest Islamic charity, having collected an estimated $57 million in contributions since its opening in Los Angeles in 1987.

The group’s officials denied the allegations and fought unsuccessfully to reinstate the charity.

Jonas told the jury Monday that federal authorities long suspected Holy Land was created to coincide with the birth of Hamas and to help that organization grow in political power by providing social services and education even as it engaged in terrorist attacks on Israel.

Jonas urged the jury not to be distracted by the tense politics of the Middle East. “You are not here to decide who is right and who is wrong in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict,” he said.

Jonas told jurors to focus on financial records showing that millions of dollars raised by Holy Land went to so-called zakat charity committees in the West Bank and Gaza that government witnesses -- including an Israeli intelligence official, who testified anonymously -- said are controlled by Hamas.

Going back to Holy Land’s earliest days, Jonas said its officials took pains to portray the organization as a simple Islamic charity to the general public while openly supporting Hamas in articles and speeches aimed at Palestinians.

Jonas also played audiotapes of numerous conversations and conferences wiretapped by the FBI, including one in Los Angeles during which Holy Land officials or invited speakers praised Hamas and condemned Israel’s policies in the occupied territories.

But Hollander, representing former Holy Land President Shukri Abu Baker, told jurors that the government had failed to prove any of the defendants had knowingly provided material support to Hamas.

She said that while authorities painted Holy Land officials as secretive and deceptive, records showed that the organization regularly filed tax returns and for years had sought the government’s guidance in identifying charities or individuals overseas that the foundation should avoid.

And in what is considered one of the defense team’s strongest arguments, Hollander cited both the testimony of a former U.S. consul general in Jerusalem and the government’s own lists of terrorist organizations to note that none of the zakat committees cited in the indictment had ever been designated by U.S. authorities as a front for Hamas.

“Don’t you think if the zakat committees were part of Hamas’ social organization, they could have found the time to designate at least one of them” mentioned in the indictment, Hollander said, holding up a large stack of papers that included the names of hundreds of organizations and individuals that the U.S. had deemed terrorist. “If the U.S. wanted to stop Holy Land, all it had to do was put the zakat committees on the list.”

The two-month trial disclosed that the FBI had conducted surveillance of the charity at various times over a 10-year period. Hollander called that further evidence that Holy Land was no supporter of terrorists.

“If the FBI thought there was a serious threat to national security, don’t you think they would have done something about it?” she said.