DALLAS - Former Congressman John Bryant (D-Texas), who served both as a lawyer and lobbyist for the Holy Land for Relief and Development (HLF), testified Thursday in the defunct charity's terror support trial. Bryant said HLF became a client in 1997 following news reports about an ongoing investigation into charity's alleged ties to terror.
Bryant said he sought several meetings with the Department of State and FBI officials asking for guidance about Palestinian charities which had terror ties and those which did not. HLF routed its donations through local Palestinian groups called zakat committees and he wanted federal officials to tell him whether HLF was doing anything illegal. If so, he wanted to know what the charity could do to take to change the situation.
He received no response, Bryant said.
During cross examination, government prosecutor Barry Jonas drew a distinction between a criminal investigation and an intelligence investigation. When Bryant approached the federal officials for guidance, the inquiry against HLF was in the intelligence investigation stage and only later became a criminal investigation, Jonas said. During a criminal investigation government agencies are under no obligation to share information, he said.
Jonas also asked about a September 2000 letter from the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) to former executive director and current defendant, Shukri Abu Baker. The letter sought to "terminate HLF's registration as a private and voluntary organization with USAID." It mentioned an earlier State Department notification to USAID saying "that it has determined that continuation of HLF's registration with USAID is contrary to the national defense and foreign policy interests of the US." Bryant acknowledged meeting with State Department and FBI officials regarding the decision.
The next witness to take the stand was Natalia Suleiman. Suleiman served as administrative assistant to Shukri Abu Baker from April 1996 through October 1999, and is currently responsible for public relations at Brighter Horizons Academy, a private Islamic School in North Texas. Suleiman said she had done humanitarian work in Sudan from May 1993 through October 1995. In Sudan, Suleiman had worked for the Islamic African Relief Agency (IARA).
IARA was designated by the U.S. Department of Treasury in October of 2004 for "Supporting bin Laden, others" including the Taliban.
"IARA engaged in a joint program with an institute controlled by [bin Laden] that was involved in providing assistance to Taliban fighters," a Treasury statement said.
Suleiman testified about various programs sponsored by the HLF, including the Orphan Support Program. When government prosecutor James Jacks asked Suleiman whether she knew that defendant Abdurahman Odeh had promised to personally sponsor the son of HAMAS fighter and bombmaker Yehya Ayyash, also known as "the Engineer," Suleiman replied, "No."
Suleiman said that HLF sponsored booths at Islamic conferences and other events including those sponsored by the Muslim Arab Youth Association (MAYA) and the Islamic Association of Palestine (IAP), both listed as unindicted co-conspirators in this case. To see more on these conferences click here.
According to Suleiman, most of HLF's relief projects were concentrated in Palestine, Lebanon, and Jordan. Suleiman said that HLF worked through Sanabil in Lebanon. Jacks asked Suleiman whether she knew that Sanabil was a designated entity, Suleiman answered, "No." Suleiman also testified that HLF worked through Human Appeal in Jordan.