DALLAS – In a whirlwind day of testimony, jurors in the Hamas-support trial of five former officials at the Holy Land Foundation for Relief and Development (HLF) were guided through stacks of financial records and taken inside a secretive meeting held in the U.S. with the ambition of scuttling peace in the Middle East.
The men are accused of illegally sending $12 million to Hamas through a series of Palestinian charities called zakat committees. Most of the conduct occurred before U.S. law prohibited dealing with Hamas, but it clearly established HLF's role in a covert committee created by the Muslim Brotherhood to advance the Hamas agenda in the U.S. and the flow of money from the U.S. to Hamas-tied entities.
FBI agent Lara Burns was the day's sole witness. Working with federal prosecutor Barry Jonas, the two took jurors through a series of excerpts from a secret 1993 meeting of Hamas members and supporters called in the wake of the Oslo Peace Accords.
This is the second trial in the HLF case, the first ended in a mistrial after jurors could not reach unanimous verdicts on most of the counts. Prosecutors have streamlined their presentation in response, with several changes on display Monday.
The 1993 meeting by the Palestine Committee, held in a Courtyard by Marriott hotel in Philadelphia, lasted two days. FBI agents, secretly recording the meeting, used 18 separate tapes to capture the dialogue. For this trial, the government created a highlight reel of sorts – presenting excerpts of the most pertinent conversations.
Jurors heard about the Palestine Committee's opposition to the accords, repeated references to deceiving Americans about the group's attitudes toward the deal and its overall objective and discussion of how human rights and helping the downtrodden could be a winning strategy to derail the agreement while still gaining popular support in the America.
HLF, which claims to be devoted solely to charity work for the needy, paid the air fare and hotel bills for a handful of the meeting's attendees, including Omar Ahmad. At the time, Ahmad was an officer in the Islamic Association for Palestine. He is the speaker who called the Philadelphia meeting to order (see page 10).
The following summer, Ahmad became one of the founding incorporators of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR). Jonas and Burns reviewed transcripts from the Philadelphia meeting in which the participants discussed the need to create a new political organization. An unidentified speaker raised the issue (see page 4 of the link):
"In my opinion, we must form a new organization for activism which will be neutral because we are placed in a corner, we are place in a corner. It is known who we are, we are marked and I believe that there should be a new neutral organization which works on both sides."
In the end, the group agreed it could accomplish its goals by emphasizing human rights conditions and charity.
"The suffering still exists and we could benefit from the suffering in the camps from the angle of approaching the Palestinian cause from this angle at least," former HLF executive director Shukri Abu Baker said (see page 6 of the link)
Throughout the day, Jonas stopped the tapes that played, with accompanying translations sub-titled, so jurors could keep up with the often fast-paced conversations.
The evidence showed some of the defendants, including Baker, lying about his connections to Hamas and the Palestine Committee. For example, Baker signed a sworn declaration as part of a civil suit in 2002. On page 21 of the document, he claimed the Philadelphia meeting was a mere gathering "of Islamic intellectuals, academicians, community leaders and representatives of American Islamic organizations, such as ours. It was not a meeting of any organization."
Yet, prosecutors produced an agenda of that meeting, entitled "Future of Islamic Action for Palestine in North America."
During the meeting, Baker instructed the others not to say the word Hamas, but refer instead to "Sister Samah" (Hamas backward). That, he would explain in the 2002 declaration, "was 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. Some people at the meeting also referred to the ‘The Movement.' I do not believe that anyone who used this term was referring to Hamas."
Turning to page 14 from a meeting transcript, Baker expressed concern that "America will classify Samah as a terrorist organization."
Jonas stopped Burns, who was reading from the transcript and asked, "Was he concerned they would classify ‘forgiveness' as a terrorist organization?" Only, Burns answered, "if you believe what he said in the declaration."
Later, the two focused on the number of times the Philadelphia meeting attendees spoke openly of trying to "derail" the Oslo Accords, considered at the time a major step toward a peaceful settlement to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
They also noted the attention paid to how the group would craft its message to Americans. "War is deception," Baker said at two different times.
Earlier, Burns walked jurors through a series of financial exhibits, again seeming to take care to break things down as much as possible for jurors to follow. She spent much of the morning reviewing and explaining charts assembled by the government tracking the early flow of money from HLF to Hamas leader Mousa Abu Marzook and a charity created by Hamas spiritual leader Ahmed Yassin in 1980s and early 1990s.
First, she explained summary exhibits assembled to show the amount of money involved, the parties and the various bank records and other exhibits that prove the money was sent.
The exhibits were made "hopefully to make it easy to understand this mountain of bank records," Burns said.
For example, bank records show Mousa Abu Marzook, now the Hamas deputy political director, personally gave $210,000 to HLF between 1988-89. But Marzook was a student in Mississippi at the time and his personal tax return shows he made about $50,000 that year. With no apparent independent wealth, Jonas asked, where'd Marzook get the money?
Between 1989 and 1994, HLF sent more than $730,000 to the Islamic Center of Gaza, a charity run by Hamas spiritual leader Ahmed Yassin. According to a 1996 article in the Middle East Affairs Journal, programs at the center were run by the Muslim Brotherhood. Donations cut off as the U.S. banned support for Hamas in 1995, Burns said.
Then there was the case of K&A Trading, a Saudi Arabian company that received $250,000 from HLF during September and October 1988. The company was run by Khairy H. Al-Agha, a man identified in other exhibits as a Palestine Committee member in Saudi Arabia, Burns said.
HLF claims to donate money only to charities, Jonas said. Was Agha a charity?
No, Burns answered.
Agha also is listed on page 54 of the translation of Mousa Abu Marzook's address book.
Other bank records showed Agha's company sent $1.3 million to Marzook between 1988 and 1991.
Marzook, meanwhile, gave money to HLF, defendant Mohamed El-Mezain, and two other Palestine Committee entities – the Islamic Association for Palestine and the United Association for Studies and Research. Marzook was on the board of both. Ahmed Yousef, spokesman and senior advisor to deposed Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh, served as executive director of the UASR and as editor of an IAP magazine.
Burns is set to return to the stand when testimony resumes Tuesday morning.