DALLAS – The fate of five men accused of running the nation's largest terrorist-financing front is in the hands of a jury.
The men, officers and employees at the Holy Land Foundation for Relief and Development (HLF) are charged with conspiracy and with providing material support to Hamas through their charitable donations. Prosecutors say HLF funneled more than $12 million to Hamas, mostly through a network of social welfare charities in the West Bank and Gaza.
During two and a half days of closing arguments that ended Wednesday afternoon, attorneys offered strikingly different interpretations of those charities, known as zakat committees. Prosecutors say the committees are controlled by Hamas and their activities – food programs, schools and hospitals - are a vital cog in the terrorist group's campaign to win the hearts and minds of Palestinians.
Defense attorneys say Palestinian society wouldn't allow that, that the committees were non partisan in nature and sanctioned by the Palestinian Authority which is a bitter rival to Hamas.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Nathan Garrett had the final word in the two-month long trial. In a rebuttal argument, he urged jurors to take disparate pieces of evidence together to see what HLF did for Hamas. He spent considerable time on exhibits showing HLF was part of a broader group, a Palestine Committee established in the U.S. by the Muslim Brotherhood, an 80-year-old Islamist movement that seeks the global empowerment of Islamic law.
Defendants Shukri Abu Baker, Ghassan Elashi and Mohammad El-Mezain are listed as committee members in a 1993 telephone list.
"These documents never were intended to see the light of day," Garrett said.
HLF sponsored U.S. fundraising tours by Hamas officials, including founding members Mohammed Siyam and Mahmud Zahar. Their conferences featured songs in praise of Hamas and skits in which defendant Mufid Abdulqader pretended to kill an Israeli.
Defense attorneys argued all of that was protected free speech. That's true, Garrett said. It isn't in evidence as proof they broke the law, but rather "It tells us who they are. It tells us what they believe."
Defense attorneys repeatedly challenged government claims about the zakat committees. Jurors must accept the argument that they were controlled by Hamas to find the men guilty. But defense attorneys say that assertion comes from an Israeli security officer and other biased sources.
Garrett countered that by reminding jurors some of the committee members were identified as Hamas members by a senior Hamas official, Khalid Mishaal. Other committees had members arrested by Israeli police for work on Hamas attacks. The Hebron committee included the Hamas leader in Hebron.
Then there was a 1991 letter to Shukri Abu Baker. The letter listed various zakat committees and assessed how many people there were "ours."
Next to the Qalqilya zakat committee, it says "all of it is ours and it is guaranteed."
The committees also were discussed during a secret 1993 meeting in Philadelphia of the Palestine Committee. They met in early October to discuss ways to "derail" the new Oslo peace accord. Hamas' charter rules out any peaceful settlement to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and committee members expressed concern that momentum from the accord could marginalize the Islamist movement by making the Palestinian Authority dominant.
Garrett also read from article 21 of that charter, which outlines a social welfare program obligation to foster a spirit of cooperation. When that happens "love will be deepened and cooperation and mercy will (exist) and ranks will be strengthened in confrontation with the enemies."
The U.S. Treasury Department shut down HLF in December 2001 after designating it a terrorist organization and freezing its assets. HLF faced media and law enforcement scrutiny for years. Its President Shukri Abu Baker repeatedly denied any association with Hamas or even any endorsement of its violent agenda in that time.
Garrett reminded jurors of examples, from a 1996 interview with the Dallas Morning News, and a 2002 sworn declaration given as part of a civil lawsuit in Illinois. It was in one of the Philadelphia transcripts that Baker also said "war is deception." Speakers there acknowledged it was a meeting of the Palestine Committee, Garret said, and repeatedly spoke about Hamas.
"Why the lies?" Garrett asked. "If they're just exercising their free speech… why are they lying?"
Garrett followed defense attorney Linda Moreno, who argued that her client, Ghassan Elashi had done nothing to support Hamas. He cared only about helping needy women and orphans, she said.
"I wonder where those families go now. Where do those children go? Where do those needy families go? Do they go to the government of Israel?" she asked.
She described the "cynicism and cruelty of this prosecution" and asked what hope it offered that these people will be helped?
Moreno challenged the government's expert witnesses, Matthew Levitt and an Israeli security officer who testified under the pseudonym "Avi." Both men claimed to be Hamas experts and said the zakat committees were part of the terrorist group's structure. But neither man visited the committees in question, she said.
Two defense witnesses, including Edward Abington, the former U.S. Consul General in Jerusalem, visited the committees personally and testified they saw no evidence the groups were Hamas controlled.
Neither man was a Hamas expert, Garrett said, adding one could not identify the Hamas logo or name any of its leaders. "If you'll forgive my bluntness," he said, "neither of them knows squat."
In one 1997 call, the speaker praised "the steadfast" and named Sheik Ahmad Yassin, bomb-making guru Yehya Ayyash and Hamas founder Mousa Abu Marzook as those helping the Islamic world move "from weakness to strength and to the love of martyrdom." Hamas was never named specifically, Garrett acknowledged, but the three names invoked constitute a "Mount Rushmore" of its founders.
Garrett did agree with one defense argument – that a big part of the case involves violence against children. But Garrett pointed to videotapes seized from one charity committee showing kids dressed up as Hamas fighters or expressing a love of martyrdom and referring to their own blood.
An organization such as Hamas needs people to run its social wing. It needs directors, fundraisers, even singers, he said. "It's a machinery that works. They all have a role to play and they all played it."