Purpose of HLF's Charity Debated in Closing Arguments
November 10, 2008
DALLAS – They sang praises to a terrorist group, had telephone access to its leadership and deceived the public about their true ambitions, a federal prosecutor said Monday about the Holy Land Foundation for Relief and Development (HLF).
Five former HLF officials are on trial for illegally routing millions of dollars in donations to Hamas through a series of Palestinian charities, known as zakat committees, that prosecutors say are controlled by the terrorist group.
In his closing argument, federal prosecutor Barry Jonas pointed to what he called the "highlights of the highlights" of the government's six-week case. It includes hundreds of exhibits, ranging from wiretapped telephone calls to audio and video conferences to stacks of bank records.
But the case likely hinges on whether jurors agree the zakat committees were controlled by Hamas. Jonas pointed to instances in which some committee officials were identified as Hamas members in media interviews and by other Hamas officials. Telephone records in evidence tied in other committee officials. And a former HLF fundraiser testifying for the government said that the zakat committees were a part of Hamas.
It's an assessment shared by the Palestinian Authority, Jonas noted.
The Hamas charter calls for the destruction of the state of Israel, to be replaced by a Palestinian state governed by Shariah, or Islamic law, Jonas said. It also calls for providing charity "to everyone who is in need of it."
Bruce Hoffman, a Georgetown University professor and terrorism expert, testified that a social wing has proven critical for successful terrorist movements throughout history.
Hamas has three branches, Jonas said, a military arm that carries out terrorist attacks, a social arm that wins hearts and minds of the population through charitable work, and a political arm that controls the money and sets policy.
Much of Jonas' argument was spent reviewing audio and video tapes in evidence. Rallies in which Hamas leaders appear or were praised were shown. A skit featuring defendant Mufid Abdelqader, who performed in a band at many of these functions, ended with him pretending to strangle an actor portraying an Israeli civilian.
‘I am Hamas o dear one," he said on the video.
"That sums it up right there," Jonas said.
Jonas told jurors they were not there to decide which side is right in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Nor were they to be swayed by a defense emphasis on the conditions of life for Palestinians under occupation.
There were three reasons why there were there. Hamas received a lot of money from people in the United States. Even if Hamas has not targeted us, the country should not be used as "a cash cow" for terrorists. In addition, Hamas terrorism directly affects American foreign policy and national security by hindering U.S. efforts to broker Middle East peace deals.
Finally, and most simply, it's against the law to provide support to Hamas, Jonas said.
"We all support and believe in charity. But the charity that we believe in and support does not come with strings attached," he said.
"If someone feeds you, you're going to support them. You're going to do what they need," Jonas said. That could mean providing a safe house, serving as a driver or providing other services.
Telephone records show HLF officials were in contact with the "upper echelon of the (Hamas) organization. Not everyone can do that," Jonas said.
He also focused attention on a pattern of deception by HLF officials, notably former executive director Shukri Abu Baker. It was Baker who told fellow Hamas supporters that "war is deception" during a secret 1993 meeting in Philadelphia called to discuss ways to "derail" the new Oslo Peace Accords.
"This is coming from a man running a charity whose whole purpose is supposed to be helping children. Why would he say war is deception?" Jonas asked.
That meeting was called by the Palestine Committee, an entity created by the Muslim Brotherhood to help Hamas. Internal records show HLF was the committee's financial arm, working with the Islamic Association for Palestine (which provided propaganda in the United States) and a think tank called the United Association for Studies and Research (UASR).
Hamas political chief Mousa Abu Marzook helped create the UASR. In 1994, Marzook sided with HLF in a dispute over who controls financial support for Hamas.
A challenge that was debated in the Philadelphia meeting was how to oppose the peace deal, which created the Palestinian Authority, without coming off as terror supporters, Jonas said.
He repeatedly cited a deposition and a sworn declaration by Baker in which Baker described the Philadelphia meeting as "a meeting of Islamic intellectuals, academicians, community leaders and representatives of American Islamic organizations, such as ours. It was not a meeting of any organization."
In that declaration, he also said: "I reject and abhor Hamas."
FBI agents eavesdropped on the Philadelphia meeting. Transcripts show Baker urged people not to even mention Hamas by name. Instead, he flipped it around and asked that they refer to "Samah."
In his declaration, Baker said that was intended to be "a whimsical and ironic play on
words. "Samah" means "forgiveness" in Arabic, and, in my opinion, those who used the term were making ironic fun of Hamas, not adopting a secret term to disguise their references to the organization."
This is the second trial for HLF. A mistrial was declared in October 2007 after jurors could not reach unanimous decisions on most counts. Prosecutors made a series of adjustments to their case, opting not to put in some exhibits and adding witnesses like Hoffman and the former HLF fundraiser Mohamed Shorbagi.
But the closing argument seemed closelyto track last year's. Some of the lines, like this final statement from Jonas, were nearly identical to his argument in the original trial:
"Don't let the defendants deceive you by saying they wanted to help widows and orphans. By helping Hamas they helped create widows and orphans. Find them guilty."
The case is not about terrorism, but about charity, countered defense attorney Theresa Duncan, who represents Baker. The violent images and dogma jurors saw in videotapes - some taken from HLF offices – reflected attitudes born of a "hard-fisted occupation" that created economic and welfare needs in the Palestinian territories that HLF merely sought to relieve.
Baker is heard on other tapes saying he intended to follow the law, she said, and hired accountants and lobbyists to try to keep his organization in line.
The Palestine Committee has been hyped by prosecutors, Duncan said. "At most it was a loose affiliation" of organizations concerned about events in Palestine, and there was no evidence it was a secret Hamas arm in America.
Baker was mostly honest in his sworn declaration, she said. The Philadelphia meeting was far in his past and he did consider it a gathering of intellectuals and others. She also questioned whether it was actually a Palestine Committee meeting, since it appeared not all the participants were listed on committee phone lists. When Baker urged people to refer to "Samah" instead of Hamas, she said it was because he feared being arrested by Israel while traveling on charity business.
No evidence to that point was ever offered.
Defense attorneys for the other four defendants will offer their arguments Tuesday morning – jurors are eager enough to complete the case that they will work on Veteran's Day – and federal prosecutor James Jacks will make a final, rebuttal argument before deliberations begin.