Confusion Clouds HLF Verdicts
October 22, 2007
Updated 2:55 pm DALLAS – The nation's largest terror-support trial ended in a mistrial Monday after jurors were unable to reach unanimous decisions on most counts. In a bizarre twist, three jurors told U.S. District Judge A. Joe Fish that they disagreed with acquittals announced against at least two defendants, prompting the judge not to accept those outcomes.
Federal prosecutor James Jacks told the court the government will retry the case against the Holy Land Foundation for Relief and Development (HLF). It and five former officials were accused of illegally funneling more than $12 million to Palestinian charity committees controlled by Hamas. Prosecutors relied on secretly recorded conversations and a mountain of bank and other financial records to show that flow of money.
It wasn't enough.
Jurors announced they were finished last Thursday after 19 days of deliberations. Judge Fish was out of town, however, delaying the announcement of the verdicts until this morning. Fish asked each juror if he or she agreed with the verdicts after reading them in court. Three stunned the courtroom by saying they did not.
"Your verdict must be unanimous and it's apparent to me from the answers of three members of the jury in respect to my question that the verdicts that I read earlier do not rep the unanimous view of the jury," Fish told the jury, initially sending them back to the jury room for more deliberations.
Fish declared a mistrial about an hour later, voiding announced acquittals for HLF itself and many counts against fundraiser Mufid Abdulqader and New Jersey representative Abdulrahman Odeh. HLF's original chairman Mohammed El-Mezain was acquitted on all counts, except one conspiracy charge involving material support for terrorists.
Jurors did not reach unanimous verdicts against HLF president Shukri Abu Baker or director Ghassan Elashi.
Civil attorney Stephen Landes said he was "astounded" a majority of jurors seemed ready to acquit HLF from charges it was part of a conspiracy to support Hamas. Landes won a $156 million judgment in 2004 against HLF and other entities on behalf of a Chicago teen killed by a Hamas gunman in the West Bank in 1996.
"I don't know how you get past the Philadelphia meeting," Landes said. "You have big shots from Hamas coming in and saying ‘These are our organizations.'"
That's a reference to a secret 1993 meeting of Hamas members and supporters called in the wake of the Oslo peace accord. FBI agents taped the meeting through a Foreign Intelligence Act warrant and heard the participants, including Shukri Abu Baker, discuss ways to "derail" the peace plan. The group feared it would marginalize the Islamist Hamas organization and opposed it because they will not accept a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In one transcript, Baker tells his colleagues that "war is deception." In addition, jurors saw a 1991 letter to Baker that listed various zakat committees and assessed how many people there were "ours."
In raw dollars, the HLF case was the largest U.S. terrorism prosecution, with more than $12 million flowing from the Richardson, TX-based charity to what prosecutors allege are Hamas controlled entities. It was all part of a sweeping "Palestine Committee" created by the Muslim Brotherhood to increase US-based support for Hamas. Along with HLF, other committee members included the Islamic Association for Palestine and a think-tank called the United Association for Studies and Research.
Documents entered into evidence also show that the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) joined the committee after its 1994 incorporation.
Defense attorneys countered that the defendants provided desperately needed relief supplies to Palestinians. The government, they argued, failed to prove the charity committees were under Hamas control.
Among their witnesses was former U.S. Consul General Edward Abington. He testified that he visited many of the zakat, or charity, committees alleged to be part of Hamas. U.S. intelligence never advised him that was true, he said, and he saw nothing when he visited committee offices to cause him concern.
"He was using the imprimatur of the U.S. government against the government," Landes said. "I would imagine that had an impact."
It's the latest in a string of frustrating outcomes for the Justice Department in high-profile terror-support cases.
Earlier this year, a jury in Chicago acquitted Mohammed Salah and Abdelhaleem al-Ashqar on charges they provided support to Hamas. The men were convicted of obstruction of justice – Salah for providing false testimony in a civil lawsuit related to Hamas and Ashqar for refusing to testify before a grand jury investigating Hamas support.
Salah was sentenced to 21 months in prison. Ashqar is scheduled to be sentenced next month.
In 2005, a Tampa jury acquitted former University of South Florida Professor Sami Al-Arian on eight counts he provided support for the Palestinian Islamic Jihad. Jurors deadlocked on nine other counts. In April 2006, Al-Arian entered a guilty plea to one count of conspiracy to make or receive contributions of funds, goods or services to or for the benefit of the Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ), a Specially Designated Terrorist.
The three cases all involve allegations of supporting Palestinian terrorists. Prosecutors have been more successful winning convictions in equally complex cases involving Al Qaeda, including the recent conviction of Jose Padilla, Adham Hassoun and Kifah Jayyousi of conspiracy to murder, kidnap, and maim people in a foreign country; conspiracy to provide material support for terrorists; and providing material support for terrorists. In that case, the threat was directly aimed at Americans, said Bill West, an IPT consultant who retired in 2003 as chief of the national security section for Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).
It's possible that American juries "distance themselves from terrorists blowing up buses and blowing up Israeli cafes – that that's not our fight," West said Monday. A veteran of hundreds of prosecutions, he said he had never seen the routine step of polling a jury lead to an outcome such as this. "It's just such an incredible turn of events," West said.
The Dallas jury could not find what at least two different federal judges did – that HLF funds went to charity committees controlled by Hamas. Federal judges in Washington, DC and in Chicago found that was the case in two civil trials, in which the standard of proof is lower than the reasonable doubt required for criminal convictions.
In addition to Landes' civil case, two other courts have found HLF supported Hamas. The U.S. Treasury Department shut down HLF in December 2001 by designating it as a terrorist organization and freezing its assets. HLF lost its challenge of that order in 2002, with U.S. District Judge Gladys Kessler finding "ample evidence that (1) HLF has had financial connections to Hamas since its creation in 1989; (2) HLF leaders have been actively involved in various meetings with Hamas leaders; (3) HLF funds Hamas-controlled charitable organizations; (4) HLF provides financial support to the orphans and families of Hamas martyrs and prisoners; (5) HLF's Jerusalem office acted on behalf of Hamas; and (6) FBI informants reliably reported the HLF funds Hamas."
The appeals court for Washington, D.C. upheld Kessler's ruling.