DALLAS – Defense attorneys spent Friday trying to chip away at government evidence against five former officials at the Holy Land Foundation for Relief and Development (HLF). They have tried to show the evidence, while seeming to be substantial, is a fraction of the hundreds of boxes seized in various search warrants and thousands of intercepted telephone calls.
Thus far, the defense questions have not challenged the accuracy of the evidence presented – transcripts and tapes showing the defendants praising Hamas and, in the case of some, participating in a 1993 meeting of Hamas members and supporters aimed at derailing the U.S.-negotiated Oslo Peace Accords.
The defendants are charged with illegally routing $12 million to Hamas through a network of charities, or zakat committees in the West Bank and Gaza. Prosecutors say those committees were part of, or controlled by, Hamas. Defense attorneys counter that the men raised money for legitimate charities that provided desperately needed relief.
In its searches at the HLF and related offices and the homes of several co-conspirators, the government seized as many as 600 boxes of evidence, including thousands of audio and video tapes. About 250 exhibits were admitted into evidence during the past week of FBI agent Lara Burns' testimony.
Defense attorney Linda Moreno, representing defendant Ghassan Elashi, emphasized the volume of evidence that was written or taped before 1995 – before support for Hamas became illegal. Defense attorney Gregg Westfall, representing HLF New Jersey representative Abdelrahman Odeh, picked up on Moreno's tactic. He noted there were wiretaps on the various defendants for a decade, which would cover thousands of prospective calls.
As reported earlier, Agent Burns showed jurors transcripts of the critical1993 meeting held in Philadelphia, attended by defendants Elashi and Shukri Abu Baker that was part of the Palestine Committee, an arm of the Muslim Brotherhood created to advance the Hamas agenda in the United States. She also showed videos of rallies and fund raisers in which Hamas is praised and skits portrayed the murder of Israelis.
In testimony earlier this week, Burns pointed to correspondence and bank records that indicate that HLF had sent money to the Middle East without accounting for its purposes. Twice in 1992, HLF sent $100,000 to an agency called Islamic Relief. In each case, the payments came within weeks of correspondence to Hamas Deputy Political Director Mousa Abu Marzook from unnamed people in the Middle East.
The first letter invoked a Hamas attack on Israeli soldiers that had occurred days earlier. "It is a Jihad for the sake of God," the letter said. "A victory or martyrdom."
The letter, signed "Seven Up," requested money for "pieces of steel" that might otherwise be bought by the rival Fatah movement: "Therefore, we hope that you send $100,000 very quickly to conclude the bargains before they are sold as the positive is in dire need for them to replace the old pieces, all of which are not worth one new piece."
Telephone records show Marzook spoke with defendant Mohamed El-Mezain a few days later and the HLF payment soon followed. Paperwork associated with the $100,000 sent by HLF to Islamic Relief was to provide aid to 500 families. While the documents listed the names and information of about 100 families who were supposed to receive charity help, the records indicate they were to receive $200 each, covering only $20,000 of the payment, Burns said.
A similar transaction, also worth $100,000, came two weeks later. Similarly, in that case, information on 100 families covered only $20,000 of the money. Islamic Relief, which later closed, was never designated as a terrorist entity by the United States, Moreno said during her cross examination.
In his cross examination, Westfall presented evidence that Odeh engaged in legitimate charity work, including lining up support for specific families and leading a relief mission to Kosovo with food supplies and two ambulances.
Cross examination of Burns continues Monday. Burns indicated she may return to the witness stand later in the trial to discus the zakat committees that received HLF money.