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Appeals Court Upholds Freezing of Islamic Charity's Assets

The panel finds 'ample evidence' linking the Holy Land Foundation to terror group Hamas.

June 21, 2003|Stephen Braun | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — A federal appeals court ruled Friday that the Treasury Department acted properly in freezing the assets of an Islamic charity in Texas suspected of funding the Palestinian terrorist group Hamas.

In a unanimous decision that upheld a lower federal court ruling, a three-judge panel of the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia said the government's move to shut down the charity was based on "ample evidence."

Holy Land Foundation for Relief and Development, a suburban Dallas organization that billed itself as the largest U.S.-based Muslim charity, had complained that the government violated its rights, providing false evidence and flimsy justification based largely on anonymous informants. Through its attorneys, the group continues to deny the charges.

But public government documents and sealed materials made available to the judges convinced the court that Holy Land's "role in the funding of Hamas and of its terrorist activities is incontrovertible," Judge David B. Sentelle wrote.

On the order of President Bush, Holy Land was declared a "Specially Designated Global Terrorist" group on Dec. 4, 2001, about three months after the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. Treasury and FBI agents seized documents from the group's headquarters in Richardson, Texas, and branches in San Diego, Bridgeview, Ill., and Paterson, N.J.

The charity later sued the government in an attempt to free its funds and renew its charity operations. Since it was founded by a group of Palestinian Americans in Los Angeles in 1989, Holy Land concentrated on relief efforts in the occupied territories of Israel, but also aided Muslims dispossessed by fighting in Bosnia and even Americans who were victims of tornadoes and the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing.

But even as Holy Land collected more than $28 million in donations between 1989 and 1999, federal officials said, the charity secretly forged intimate ties with Hamas leaders, received hundreds of thousands of dollars in aid from the terrorist group and sent aid to the families of suicide bombers. Covert electronic surveillance and federal informants allegedly overheard Holy Land officers sympathizing with the militant group's avowed mission to use violence to overthrow the state of Israel.

The federal appeals judges said Friday they were persuaded by Treasury's suspicions of Holy Land, saying the charity "maintain[ed] its ties with Hamas and continued to give money to entities controlled by and associated with Hamas."

Treasury General Counsel David Aufhauser said Friday that the ruling confirms the agency's use of a vital tool against terrorism. "The power to freeze the assets of terrorists and those who support them is one of our most effective weapons in preventing future acts of terror," he said.

An attorney for the charity said Friday that the organization is considering appealing either to the full appeals court or to the U.S. Supreme Court. Lawyer John W. Boyd said Holy Land's constitutional rights to a public hearing, religious activity and free speech were violated. Boyd said Holy Land's officers "never supported Hamas" and government evidence "was entirely concocted."

"The question that's raised by this decision and by the actions of the Department of the Treasury is whether we're truly now in an era in which the property of American citizens and companies can be seized and people's lives can be destroyed without any opportunity for a hearing," Boyd said.

But in his decision, Sentelle said Holy Land had "every opportunity to come forward," saying the charity was able to present evidence in April 2002 when the government reconsidered its terrorism designation.

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