HLF Redux: Streamlined, With More Punch
November 12, 2008
It's the same case, with the same defendants, but the terror-support retrial of five former officials at the Holy Land Foundation for Relief and Development (HLF) offered a substantially different presentation from last year's original trial.
That case ended in a mistrial when jurors failed to reach unanimous verdicts on most of the counts involved. The only verdicts acquitted a former HLF chairman of 31 of the 32 counts against him. Jurors later complained the case was too complicated, with too many charges and a mountain of evidence to navigate.
Prosecutors listened, dramatically streamlining their presentation. But they still found a way to present four new witnesses while trimming two weeks off their case. They offered a host of new summary and demonstrative exhibits, including a highlight reel of a secret 1993 meeting of Hamas supporters seeking to derail American efforts to negotiate a lasting peace between Israelis and Palestinians (see story here). Defendant Shukri Abu Baker, HLF's former executive director, is among several participants who discuss the need to mislead Americans about their true agenda, saying "War is deception."
The streamlined presentation brings a sharper focus on the basic facts and key exhibits in evidence. The new witnesses added valuable context to the laws the men are accused of violating and an insider's account of what HLF did with the money it collected in the name of needy Palestinians. Taken as a whole, the changes offered a strong rebuttal to defense arguments that the men sought merely to provide charity and not help Hamas, and claims the case is built upon the word of biased American and Israeli sources.
Whether it leads to a different outcome obviously remains unknown. An overview of the case follows:
The first change in the prosecution case came in August, before jury selection even began. Prosecutors dropped 29 charges each against defendants Mufid Abdulqader and Abdelrahman Odeh. The men still face four conspiracy counts alleging their support for Hamas. Combined with last year's acquittals of former HLF chairman Mohammed El-Mezain on 31 counts means jurors have nearly 90 fewer charges to consider.
Jurors also should have an easier time getting their hands on exhibits during deliberations, thanks to a revised identification system. Exhibits were batched numerically in the first trial. For example, evidence seized from the home of Muslim Brotherhood activist Ismael Elbarasse started with the number 3. Tapes might start with a 15, a 16, or other numbers. Jurors later complained that their discussions often stopped for extended periods while someone looked for an exhibit they thought would buttress their argument.
Now exhibits have descriptive names, usually reflecting their source. Items seized from Holy Land offices are called "HLF Search" followed by a number. Wiretaps are segregated by the person targeted for surveillance.
Prosecutors and FBI agents also made more summary exhibits explaining the family ties between some defendants and Hamas leaders, or showing which exhibits connect to the individual defendants. An Israeli Security Agency (Shin Bet) lawyer testifying anonymously even made his own demonstrative exhibits showing pictures of Hamas members who were on the boards of the various zakat committees such as Tulkarem and Nablus.
In the original trial, defense attorneys cast both the Israeli lawyer, called "Avi," and an Israeli military witness, called "Major Lior," as both biased against Palestinians and as toadies for their government. Israel is at war with the Palestinians, they said, and shouldn't be believed when its personnel connect HLF to Hamas. However, this time, jurors see that the Palestinian Authority (PA) shared the Israeli assessment.
Three exhibits from PA security offices show that the Palestinian government considered HLF to be a Hamas funding source and that zakat committees receiving HLF donations were controlled by Hamas. Israeli soldiers seized the documents during raids on PA offices in 2004. Prosecutors tried to get them entered into evidence in 2007, but could not overcome hearsay objections by the defense. Since then, the PA shut down the committees due to their Hamas ties, a move that may have convinced U.S. District Judge Jorge A. Solis – who was not the presiding judge in the first trial – to admit the documents into evidence.
Meanwhile, four new witnesses were called to reinforce previous arguments or to provide additional insights into the case. These included two former senior U.S. government officials.
Steve Simon, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and a deputy at the National Security Council (NSC) during the Clinton Administration, explained why the U.S. outlawed support for terrorist groups like Hamas. American efforts to negotiate peace between Israel and the Palestinians triggered "a lot of terrorist violence by Palestinian groups that were looking to bring the peace process to a halt if they could."
Hamas was among the most significant contributors to the bloodshed, Simon testified.
Then, Robert McBrien, an associate director of the Treasury Department who oversaw the designation of terrorist organizations, explained the government process of targeting terrorist groups. As Morning News reporter Jason Trahan emphasized, McBrien's testimony was a direct response to what had been an effective defense argument in the first trial:
"He testified that not every Hamas front group is individually outlawed and doesn't have to be for it to be illegal to send it money. This counters the defense argument that the defendants broke no laws because the Palestinian charity groups, known as zakat committees, to which Holy Land gave more than $12 million from 1995 to 2001, are not individually labeled as terrorist affiliates."
Rebutting the defense may be the reason Bruce Hoffman was brought in by prosecutors, too. Hoffman, a professor in the Security Studies Program at Georgetown University's School of Foreign Service and a former Scholar-in-Residence at the CIA, told jurors that virtually all successful terrorist movements won popular support by providing the kinds of social support Hamas offers.
The Hamas charter spells out the need to engage in charity. Doing so, Hoffman said, helps a terrorist group "exercise control over the population."
HLF supported everything from kindergartens to high schools and hospitals, providing what "Avi" termed support throughout the life cycle for Palestinians. That methodical procedure of early engagement wins support and future recruits. Avi also testified that Hamas puts a premium on providing direct financial support to widows and orphans of men jailed by Israel or killed while waging terrorist attacks. Even when money is tight, Hamas takes care of what he called "special segments."
The final new witness was a former HLF fundraiser, who testified that he collected money for the group knowing it would ultimately benefit Hamas. Mohamed Shorbagi said he knew this through Hamas literature, a London-based Hamas website and word-of mouth. In 2006, Shorbagi pleaded guilty to providing material support to Hamas from 1997-2001 through his work with HLF.
HLF altered its behavior after U.S. law made support for Hamas illegal, Shorbagi said. Where officials used to be fairly open about their support, the Hamas presence was toned down after the changes in law. And the foundation set up an office in Gaza to distribute money to people tied to Hamas.
Shorbagi did not testify last year. In his recent testimony, he said he remained a Hamas supporter and an advocate of Shariah law. But he also said he supported a peaceful, two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict even though the Hamas charter states its unshaken opposition to any negotiated settlement. Defense attorneys noted that Shorbagi received a much lighter sentence by agreeing to cooperate and that it could be further reduced by testifying.
The Nuts and Bolts
Other than the new PA evidence, the basic facts of the case remain unchanged. A more detailed account can be seen here, from the 2007 trial. All the charges involve the sending of support that, in some way, benefits Hamas. In short, HLF fundraisers often featured Hamas leaders, who also spoke on fundraising conference calls. Songs and skits performed at the fundraisers from the late 1980s and early 1990s lauded the terrorist group and depicted scenes of Hamas activists killing Israelis.
HLF is repeatedly shown to be a part of the Palestine Committee, created by the Muslim Brotherhood to help Hamas financially and politically. When an associate started doing his own fundraising, Hamas political leader Mousa Abu Marzook dispatched two subordinates to Oxford, Miss. to tell Abelhaleem al-Ashqar to back off. HLF was the Hamas fundraising arm in America.
Defendants Baker, El-Mezain and Ghassan Elashi also are listed as Palestine Committee members on a phone list seized from Ashqar. The list also includes Nihad Awad and Omar Ahmad (listed as Omar Yahya), the founders of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR).
Wiretaps caught the defendants celebrating Hamas attacks. Records indicate the group was tracking Hamas membership on zakat committees as far back as 1991 and the issue was revisited during the Philadelphia meeting.
Baker's deception is emphasized by the government. In April 2002, Baker signed a sworn declaration as part of a civil suit in which he claimed to "abhor Hamas," never mentioned the Palestine Committee and claimed the Philadelphia meeting had nothing to do with Hamas, but was "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."
Also emphasized was the ability to provide charity to Palestinians without routing money through Hamas-tied social committees. Hoffman mentioned the Palestinian Red Crescent and the United Nations. "Avi," the anonymous Israeli security lawyer, said sending money directly to the family of a suicide bomber is better because it helps the family, and not the Hamas social infrastructure.
Jurors began deliberating Wednesday. In the first trial, it took 19 days before the mistrial was declared.
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