As President Obama's tenure reaches its final days, Islamists in the United States are waging a furious lobbying campaign aimed at securing the freedom of five men convicted of illegally routing millions of dollars to Hamas.
An open campaign urges the president to pardon five former officials from the defunct, Texas-based Holy Land Foundation for Relief and Development (HLF), casting them as victims of "anti-Muslim hysteria" triggered by the 9/11 attacks. In 2008, a jury convicted the five – Shukri Abu Baker, Ghassan Elashi, Mohammed El-Mezain, Abdulrahman Odeh and Mufid Abdulqader – of using a network of Palestinian charities controlled by Hamas to funneling money to the terrorist group.
It is not clear whether the requests to pardon the five, or to commute their sentences and release them from prison, is being considered seriously. Obama's pardons thus far involved somewhat less serious crimes including fraud, embezzlement and non-violent drug offenses.
But advocates are pushing social media campaigns and online petitions aimed at securing a pardon, or, short of that, a commutation of the five men's sentences to set them free. The campaign also has enlisted support from at least one member of Congress.
Left unspoken is an undeniable truth behind the pardon/commutation campaign, and behind any ongoing defense of the Holy Land Foundation: Advocates do not believe Hamas support is wrong.
The Muslim Legal Fund of America (MLFA) is leading the charge, supported by the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) and pro-Palestinian groups.
CAIR's appeal provided a White House switchboard number for supporters to call and request commutations. Some sites even include contact information for key members of Congress, urging supporters to emphasize the "cruelly disproportionate" length of sentences – from a low of 15 years for El-Mezain, to 65-year terms for Baker and Elashi.
CAIR's Arizona director Imraan Siddiqi described the prosecution as "a political lynching of charity workers ... Its effects still haunt American Muslims."
After reviewing the entire record in 2011, the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals saw it quite differently.
Pleas from the MLFA and Siddiqi ignore the exhibits – many of them internal HLF and related documents – showing the family ties between some defendants and Hamas leaders, a reliance on Hamas officials to speak at HLF fundraisers along with other, consistent pro-Hamas messages.
In addition, records show, HLF (formerly known as the Occupied Land Fund) was part of a network called the "Palestine Committee" in the United States. That committee answered to the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood's mandate that global chapters create "Palestine Committees" in their home countries. Their task was "to support Hamas from abroad," the Fifth Circuit noted in upholding the convictions and sentences. In the United States, that task fell in part to Hamas political leader Mousa Abu Marzook, who helped create HLF and two other branches – a propaganda wing known as the Islamic Association for Palestine (IAP) and a think-tank called the United Association for Studies and Research (UASR).
CAIR was added to the Palestine Committee after its 1994 founding.
"The evidence showed that the long-standing connection between HLF and Hamas began in the late 1980s when HLF arose as a fundraising arm for the Palestine Committee ..." the appeals court ruling said. "This fact was notably evident from the ... [internal Palestine Committee] documents, which showed that HLF was created along with the IAP." In addition, Palestine Committee bylaws "specifically recognized HLF as 'the official organization for fundraising.'"
HLF apologists claim the group was merely interested in helping needy widows and orphans. But, the court pointed out, the orphans included Yehia Ayyash's children. Ayyash was Hamas's top bomb maker, nicknamed "The Engineer," before being killed by Israel.
"An audio tape from 1996 that was seized from HLF's offices contained songs praising Hamas and discussions of suicide bombers as heroes," the ruling said.
"We believe that a jury could not help but infer from the above evidence that the defendants had a close association with Hamas and that HLF acted to fund Hamas both before and after Hamas's designation as a terrorist organization."
Still, CAIR's Texas chapter called the five convicted HLF officials "humanitarians," and described their imprisonment as "an immense wrong." It cited defense attorney Nancy Hollander's claim that there was no evidence showing her client, HLF executive director Shukri Abu Baker, breaking the law. "Not a word from his lips that he hated Jews. Not a word from his lips that he supported Hamas. These were fictions," Hollander said.
That cannot be said for Mufid Abdulqader, who performed and acted in a singing troupe that helped raise money for HLF at IAP events. In this video, admitted into evidence during the 2008 trial, he is shown wearing camouflage and a kaffiyeh as he sings, "I am Hamas, O dear ones ... I swear to wipe out the name of the Zionist. And protect my land, Palestine." Then, he pretends to strangle an actor portraying an Israeli.
Hollander failed to mention that Baker ran HLF and was responsible for who spoke and what was said at its fundraisers. Those events routinely featured Hamas leaders and activists. She also neglected to mention her client's participation in a secret 1993 Philadelphia gathering of Hamas members and supporters who schemed about how to "derail" the U.S.-brokered Oslo peace accord without coming off looking like terror supporters.
It was Baker who set a key ground rule for the talks, which were secretly recorded and translated by the FBI: No one should mention Hamas by name, he instructed. Instead, call it "Sister Samah," which is Hamas spelled backward.
The gathering, Baker said, was "a joint workshop between the Holy Land Foundation and the IAP." Participants should not mention Hamas by name.
Hollander then compared the HLF case – brought against a handful of men with documented and recorded connections to Hamas – to the mass internment of 117,000 Japanese American men, women and children during World War II.
The current campaign would settle for a sentencing commutation, essentially freeing the men on time served. The sentences, from 15 to 65 years in prison, were overly harsh, advocates say.
But the Fifth Circuit had considered this, too, rejecting defense department arguments. Its ruling noted that the probation office's presentence recommendations included significant terrorism enhancements because HLF gave money to Hamas "in order to rid Palestine of the Jewish people through violent jihad, HAMAS' mission."
It added that "the trial was replete with evidence to satisfy application of the terrorism enhancement because of the defendants' intent to support Hamas. The Hamas charter clearly delineated the goal of meeting the Palestinian/Israeli conflict with violent jihad and the rejection of peace efforts and compromise solutions. The defendants knew that they were supporting Hamas, as there was voluminous evidence showing their close ties to the Hamas movement."
Those claiming the HLF defendants suffered an injustice, or that they somehow deserve relief, lie about this record or pretend it does not exist. To acknowledge reality is to shatter their own argument, or to come clean about their true feelings about Hamas terrorism. They know that's a losing hand. It's something Shukri Abu Baker talked about in that 1993 Philadelphia meeting.
They need to mislead people if they are going to be successful, Baker said.
"War is deception," he said. "Deceive, camouflage, pretend that you're leaving while you're walking that way ... Deceive your enemy."