DALLAS, Texas (AFP) — The leaders of what was once the largest Muslim charity in the United States were found guilty of acting as a front for Palestinian militants in the largest terrorism financing prosecution in American history.
It was a major victory in the White House’s legal “war on terror” and comes after a mistrial was declared last year in the case involving the now defunct Texas-based Holy Land Foundation, charged with funneling 12 million dollars to Hamas.
“Today’s verdicts are important milestones in America’s efforts against financiers of terrorism,” Patrick Rowan, assistant attorney general for national security, said in a statement.
“This prosecution demonstrates our resolve to ensure that humanitarian relief efforts are not used as a mechanism to disguise and enable support for terrorist groups.”
Family members could be heard sobbing in the Dallas courtroom as guilty verdicts were read on all 108 charges of providing material support to terrorists, money laundering and tax fraud.
One woman cried out: “My dad is not a criminal! He’s a human!”
Holy Land was one of several Muslim organizations the Bush administration closed in the wake of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks for allegedly raising money for overseas Islamic extremists.
Muslim charities that remain open have reported significant drops in contributions because of fears of prosecution even as juries deadlocked or rendered acquittals or convictions of lesser charges in two other high-profile terror financing cases in Florida and Chicago.
The United States Justice Department vowed in October 2007 to retry the five former charity organizers in the Holy Land case after jurors could not agree on verdicts on nearly 200 charges and a new jury was seated in mid-September.
Over the past two months, the government has presented largely the same evidence hoping to prove that Holy Land was created in the late 1980s to gather donations from deep-pocketed American Muslims to support the then-newly formed Hamas movement resisting the Israeli occupation.
Hamas — a multi-faceted Islamist political, social and armed movement which now controls the Gaza Strip — was designated a terrorist organization by the United States in 1995 and the trial centered over whether Holy Land continued to support the group after this point.
Prosecutors did not accuse the charity of directly financing or being involved in terrorist activity. Instead, they said humanitarian aid was used to promote Hamas and allow it to divert existing funds to militant activities.
Defense attorneys said the charity was a non-political organization which operated legally to get much-needed aid to Palestinians living in squalor under the Israeli occupation and argued that the chief reasons their clients were on trial are family ties.
They left the courthouse without comment.
After reading the verdicts, U.S. District Judge Jorge Solis ordered the men detained because of fears they would flee the country before sentencing given their international ties.
Khaled Meshaal, Hamas’ political leader in Syria, is the brother of defendant Mufid Abdulqader, a top Holy Land fundraiser whose Palestinian band played at the charity’s events and now faces up to 55 years in jail.
Meshaal’s deputy, Mousa Abu Marzook, is a cousin of defendant Mohammad el-Mezain, a foundation co-founder, and is married to the cousin of defendant Ghassan Elashi, former Holy Land board chairman.
Mezain faces up to 15 years in prison while Elashi, who is already serving six and a half years for export law violations, faces up to life in prison.
The brother of defendant Shukri Abu Baker, Holy Land’s former chief executive officer, is Jamal Issa, former Hamas leader in Sudan and its current head in Yemen. Baker, the former chief executive officer of Holy Land, faces up to life in prison.
A fifth defendant is Abdulrahman Odeh, Holy Land’s New Jersey representative, who faces up to 55 years in jail.
Jurors also found that the defendants owed the government 12.4 million dollars.