HLF Case in Jury's Hands
November 11, 2008
DALLAS – Jury deliberations begin Wednesday morning in the case of five men accused of routing millions of dollars to Hamas. Closing arguments in the terror-support trial of the Holy Land Foundation for Relief and Development (HLF) and its former officers ended late Tuesday afternoon.
After the second full day of hearing from attorneys, U.S. District Judge Jorge A. Solis suggested jurors select a foreperson and go home for the evening. The men are accused of routing millions of dollars to Hamas through a series of Palestinian charities prosecutors say were controlled by the terrorist group.
But defense attorneys cast the men as humanitarians merely seeking to assuage the suffering of Palestinian women and children living under occupation. Any heated rhetoric jurors saw on videotapes of HLF fundraising rallies or on wiretaps involving the defendants was the result of frustration, they said, and not a desire to help Hamas.
In the government's final word, federal prosecutor James Jacks said that by giving money to Palestinian charities, known as zakat committees, that were controlled by Hamas, the defendants contributed to Hamas' stated goal of impeding efforts to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict peacefully. That, in turn, perpetuates the suffering the defendants claim they want to relieve.
He pointed to documents showing HLF as an organization, and three defendants individually, were part of a Palestine Committee created to help Hamas in America. The committee was led by Mousa Abu Marzook, a Hamas leader. All this happened before support for Hamas was illegal, Jacks conceded, but the defendants broke the law when their work continued in spite of the change in law.
This is the second trial for the HLF defendants. A year ago, jurors deliberated for 19 days before determining they were hopelessly deadlocked on most counts, resulting in a mistrial. Prosecutors made significant changes to their presentation the second time around, some of which emerged unscathed in defense closing arguments.
For instance, Georgetown University professor Bruce Hoffman testified as an expert witness in the retrial. He told jurors that charitable/social arms were staples of successful terrorist movements. The Hamas charter specifies the need for a social arm of the organization. Defense attorney Joshua Dratel, who represents Mohamed El-Mezain, told jurors that Hoffman did not mention zakat committees, but no one contested Hoffman's overall assertion.
Nor was much said about three documents from the Palestinian Authority that were not in evidence in the first trial. One document showed the PA considered HLF to be among the international sources of Hamas funding. Another, a 2001 report from PA security, said the Ramallah zakat committee was "associated with the Hamas movement and some of them are activists in the Movement."
Bank records show HLF sent $494,000 to the Ramallah committee from 1991-2001.
Dratel tried to minimize the PA documents, saying they looked as if they were based on media reports.
Dratel, along with other defense attorneys, argued that jurors should listen instead to Edward Abington, a former U.S. consul general in Jerusalem and later a lobbyist for the PA. Abington visited zakat committees and testified he was never informed they had any Hamas connection.
In contrast, the defense attorneys tried to discredit a lawyer for the Israeli Security Agency who testified anonymously as a prosecution expert under the name "Avi." Throughout the day, defense attorneys cited his anonymity, saying it deprived the jury a chance to assess his background and previous writings. In addition, they claimed, there were no repercussions if Avi lied on the stand since his identity isn't known.
"They want you to believe an anonymous witness with a strong stake in this case rather than someone appointed by the President of the United States," Dratel said. And several took offense at federal prosecutor Barry Jonas's statement in closing arguments Monday that Abington "doesn't know squat."
While he had access to U.S. intelligence briefings, Abington was not informed about intelligence and criminal investigations. But the use of the word "squat" was treated as an obscenity Tuesday, with Dratel saying he wouldn't repeat the word, which was "beneath them, beneath you and beneath all of us."
Some defense arguments were designed to minimize exposure by individual clients. Dratel noted a dearth of wiretaps involving his client after 1997, when Congress passed legislation making support for Hamas illegal.
And Marlo Caddedu, who represents Mufid Abdelqader, portrayed him as a bit player who performed in a band featured at HLF fundraisers. He is "a singer, a volunteer and a brother," she said. Abdelqader's half brother is Hamas political leader Khaled Mishaal.
There was no evidence he held a position of authority within HLF or had any say in where its money went. "The government is trying to make him more important than he is," Caddedu said.
She pointed to a video jurors saw of a skit in which Abdelqader plays a Hamas member who strangles an Israeli civilian after saying "I am Hamas, O dear ones."
It wasn't a confession, she said, any more than the actor portraying the Israeli was a Zionist.
"This is drama. This is performance. It may not be something you would see on Broadway," Caddedu said, but it was "pure, protected free speech."
Linda Moreno, who represents Ghassan Elashi, recounted steps she said her client took to comply with the new laws against support for Hamas, even if he disagreed with them.
He hired a lawyer to find out why news stories were linking HLF to Hamas, she said. The lawyer asked the Israeli ambassador, the FBI and the State Department seeking information. He received nothing in response. Elashi even went to Washington to meet with top Treasury Department officials seeking guidance.
That, Moreno said, are actions of a responsible principal of a charity. "The whole point is to keep the humanitarian aid going. They're not going to jeopardize that."
She spoke with the greatest passion about Palestinian life under occupation. Prosecutors say the social element is crucial to Hamas because it wins the hearts and minds of the local population.
"If it was so very easy," she said, "one wonders why the Israelis didn't feed the Palestinians."
As she did in the first trial, she decried the "cynicism and cruelty" of the prosecution, asking where Palestinians can turn to get the relief HLF provided before being closed down in 2001.
In his rebuttal, Jacks said the case did not hinge on any one exhibit or the testimony of any sole witness. He likened it to a jigsaw puzzle, where the pieces all fit together to create a picture. Defense attorneys wanted jurors to see only individual pieces and conclude they do not show a conspiracy to support Hamas.
He noted the defense emphasis on Palestinian life under Israeli occupation.
"That is their mantra. That is their excuse," Jacks said, then asked why there were no expressions of anger toward Hamas for impeding peace.
Finally, he pointed to a series of lies the defendants told in court papers related to other litigation and in interviews with FBI agents. Those lies showed "a consciousness of guilt."
An innocent charity helping needy kids wouldn't need to fabricate explanations, Jacks said. But HLF was run by Shukri Abu Baker, who advised his colleagues at a 1993 Palestine Committee meeting that "war is deception."
That was no isolated comment, Jacks argued. "They were looking toward this day - if and when they were ever called upon – they could tell you the same story they've told others in life of this conspiracy. War is deception. That is what they are attempting to do today with you."