Charity convicted in terrorism financing trial

November 24, 2008 2:00:25 PM PST
A Muslim charity and five of its former leaders were convicted Monday of funneling millions of dollars to the Palestinian militant group Hamas in the retrial of the largest terrorism financing case since the attacks of Sept. 11. U.S. District Judge Jorge A. Solis announced the 108 guilty verdicts on the eighth day of deliberations in the retrial of the Holy Land Foundation for Relief and Development, once the nation's largest Muslim charity.

Relatives of the former leaders sobbed after the defendants were found guilty of all counts, and one crying woman screamed in the courtroom, "My dad is not a criminal!"

Holy Land was accused of giving more than $12 million to support Hamas. The seven-week retrial ran about as long as the original, which ended in October 2007 when a judge declared a mistrial on most charges.

Holy Land wasn't accused of violence. Rather, the government said the Richardson, Texas-based charity financed schools, hospitals and social welfare programs controlled by Hamas in areas ravaged by the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

The U.S. designated Hamas a terrorist organization in 1995 and again in 1997, making contributions to the group illegal.

Prosecutors labeled Holy Land's benefactors -- called zakat committees -- as terrorist recruiting pools. The charities, the government argued, spread Hamas' violent ideology and generated loyalty and support among Palestinians.

It was a "womb to the tomb" cycle, prosecutor Barry Jonas told jurors during closing arguments last week.

Holy Land supporters told a different story. They accused the government of politicizing the case as part of its war on terrorism, while attorneys for the foundation said Holy Land's mission was philanthropy and providing much-needed aid to the Middle East.

They reminded jurors that none of the zakat committees are designated by the U.S. as terrorist fronts, and that Holy Land also donated to causes elsewhere, including helping victims of the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995.

"No one here is engaging in acts of terrorism," Theresa Duncan, attorney for former Holy Land chief executive Shukri Abu Baker, said during closing arguments.

Government officials raided Holy Land's headquarters in December 2001 and shut it down. President George W. Bush even personally announced the seizure of Holy Land's assets, calling the action "another step in the war on terrorism."

A chaotic courtroom scene ended last year's original trial, which lasted nearly two months and kept jurors deliberating for 19 days. But they deadlocked on many counts, and when a judge polled the panel about other verdicts, some disavowed their vote.

The confusing finish led U.S. District Judge A. Joe Fish to declare a mistrial, and leaders of the defunct charity rushed outside to celebrate.

Observers last year panned the government for presenting a bloated case too complicated for jurors to follow. Prosecutors responded this year by dropping nearly 60 charges in the trial and tightening their narrative to jurors, even offering a kind of road map to help the panel follow the money.

But nearly 15 boxes of evidence wheeled into court on a flatbed still impressed the size of the case, as did the more than one hour that Solis needed to read aloud the indictment.

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