Elections

From the archives: 5 leaders of Holy Land Foundation are found guilty

FILE: Ghassan Elashi, chairman of the Holy Land Foundation in Richardson, Texas, speaks at a news conference in this Wednesday, Dec. 5, 2001, file photo. Elashi and three of his brothers, Bayan, Basman, and Hazim were arrested and indicted Wednesday morning by the the FBI terrorism task force with 33-counts of money laundering and conspiracy. The fifth brother, Ihsan Elashyi, also known as Sammy Elashyi has been serving time for illegally exporting computer goods to banned countries in the Middle East. (AP Photo/Dawn Dietrich, File)
FILE: Ghassan Elashi, chairman of the Holy Land Foundation in Richardson, Texas, speaks at a news conference in this Wednesday, Dec. 5, 2001, file photo. Elashi and three of his brothers, Bayan, Basman, and Hazim were arrested and indicted Wednesday morning by the the FBI terrorism task force with 33-counts of money laundering and conspiracy. The fifth brother, Ihsan Elashyi, also known as Sammy Elashyi has been serving time for illegally exporting computer goods to banned countries in the Middle East. (AP Photo/Dawn Dietrich, File) AP

Republican presidential candidate Ben Carson brought up the Holy Land Foundation during Tuesday night’s GOP debate in Las Vegas. He cited the North Texas criminal case that was tried in 2008 as an example of how terrorists find support in the U.S. homeland. Here is the Star-Telegram’s original story from Nov. 25, 2008 on the convictions.

Handing a long-sought and important victory to the U.S. government, a federal jury Monday convicted a Richardson-based charity of supporting the Palestinian militant group Hamas in one of the biggest terrorism-financing cases in recent years.

Five leaders of the Holy Land Foundation for Relief and Development waved and flashed peace signs to sobbing relatives and supporters before being taken into federal custody.

They face lengthy prison sentences that could lock some of them away for life.

After about eight days of deliberations, a jury convicted the defendants and Holy Land itself on all 108 counts related to giving more than $12 million to Hamas-controlled schools and social welfare programs. The outcome was a stark contrast to the end of the first trial last year, when jurors deadlocked on most counts and the judge declared a mistrial.

“Money is the lifeblood of terrorists, plain and simple,” U.S. Attorney Richard Roper said. “The jury’s decision attacks terrorism at its core.”

Roper called the convictions “a great day for the U.S.”

The case against Holy Land, one the largest Muslim charities in the United States, dates back nearly 15 years, cost untold millions of dollars and rose to such importance that President George W. Bush personally announced the freezing of Holy Land’s assets in 2001.

After last year’s mistrial, Holy Land leaders celebrated boisterously outside the Dallas federal courthouse, with some being hoisted in the air. This time, relatives quietly consoled each other, and the grief seemed to hit them in waves.

There was little visible reaction until the jury left, when several women sobbed loudly.

"My dad’s not a criminal!" one nearly inconsolable woman said loudly. Court personnel told the family to calm her down, and as relatives rushed her out of the courtroom, she said, "They treated him like an animal."

Convictions

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 was convicted of all 32 counts.

U.S. District Judge Jorge Solis ordered them into custody, noting their ties to the Middle East and the lengthy sentences that could await the Holy Land leaders.

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.

The prosecution

The convictions finally gave the government a victory in a terrorism-financing trial. Two other high-profile terrorism-financing trials in Chicago and Florida ended without convictions on the major counts.

Matthew Orwig, a former federal prosecutor who criticized last year’s failed case, called the convictions a big government victory. But the resources and time it took to convict Holy Land will stick with prosecutors when taking similar cases to court in the future, he said.

"This is definitely the most notable victory that the government has had in this type of case, " Orwig said. "Even this one was very difficult to come by."

After the mistrial last year, critics said the government had offered a weak, complicated case and had failed to recognize that juries are no longer as quick to convict Muslim defendants accused of supporting terrorism, The New York Times reported. Prosecutors spent more time in the second trial explaining the complexities of the case and painting a clearer picture of the money trail. They also dropped many of the original charges.

Holy Land wasn’t accused of violence. Rather, the government said the charity gave more than $12 million that financed schools, hospitals and social welfare programs controlled by Hamas in areas ravaged by the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

The United States 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 beneficiaries, called zakat committees, as terrorist recruiting pools. The charities, the government argued, spread Hamas’ violent ideology and generated loyalty and support among Palestinians. Prosecutors called it a "womb to the tomb" cycle.

The defense

Holy Land supporters told a different story. They accused the government of politicizing the case as part of its war on terrorism, while attorneys for the foundation said Holy Land’s mission was philanthropy and providing much-needed aid to the Middle East.

They reminded jurors that none of the zakat committees are designated by the U.S. government as terrorist fronts and that Holy Land also donated to causes elsewhere, including helping victims of the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing.

Khalil Meek, a longtime spokesman for the Muslim community in North Texas and for a coalition of Holy Land Foundation supporters called Hungry for Justice, which includes national Muslim and civil rights groups, said supporters are "devastated" by the verdict.

"We respect the jury’s decision, but we disagree and we think the defendants are completely innocent, " Meek told the Times. "For the last two years, we’ve watched this trial unfold, and we have yet to see any evidence of a criminal act introduced to a jury. This jury found that humanitarian aid is a crime.

"We intend to appeal the verdict, and we remain convinced that we will win

Noor Elashi’s father, Ghassan Elashi, was convicted on 35 counts. "I feel heartbroken that a group of my fellow Americans fell for the prosecution’s fear-mongering theory, " she said. "This is truly a low point for the United States of America, but this is not over." Noor Elashi is a former Star-Telegram reporter.

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