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Charity hid a violent goal, U.S. charges as trial begins

The agency's mission was humanitarian aid to Palestinians, not funding Hamas attacks, defense lawyers contend.

July 25, 2007|Greg Krikorian | Times Staff Writer

DALLAS — The government's biggest terrorism-financing trial to date opened Tuesday with a federal prosecutor charging that officials of a now-shuttered Islamic charity for years hid their real mission: supporting the violent actions of the Palestinian group Hamas.

Assistant U.S. Atty. James T. Jacks said the Holy Land Foundation for Relief and Development and its five former officials on trial raised and distributed millions of dollars for the militant organization.

"The evidence will show that they have lied to the public ... the government ... and the media," Jacks said. "And the reason that they have lied is because to tell the truth would have been to admit what they are all about."

Nancy Hollander, attorney for former Holy Land President Shukri Abu Baker, countered in her opening statement that the government was distorting the charity's history. Holy Land's real mission, she said, was offering food, medical care, shelter and other necessities to children and families in conflict-torn areas, including the Middle East.

"This case is about providing charity to people who desperately need it," Hollander said.

The government alleges that Holy Land was founded shortly after the creation of Hamas in 1987 as a fundraising vehicle.

Until the day in December 2001 when its four offices were shut down, including one in San Diego, Holy Land provided Hamas with goods, funds and services, according to a 36-count indictment.

That support, the government says, included about $12.4 million sent to Hamas after 1995, when the U.S. declared it a terrorist organization.

The sympathies and intentions of Holy Land officials became clear after years of surveillance and wiretaps by the FBI, authorities said.

Though the case is linked to the Middle East, Jacks told the jurors that they should not be distracted by political sensitivities in that region.

"This is not going to be a college course on the Arab-Israeli conflict," the prosecutor said. "This is a criminal trial in a United States courtroom."

But defense attorneys countered that the charity's work was legitimate and that its mission was in response to political and economic repression in the West Bank, Gaza Strip and other areas.

Hollander and other defense lawyers said much of Holy Land's efforts were focused on the Palestinian territories because tens of thousands live there under Israeli occupation in neighborhoods that "are among the poorest in the world."

"What united Muslims around the world ... was an obligation to help the people who could not escape the [Israeli] occupation," attorney Linda Moreno said.

Her client, former Holy Land chief executive Ghassan Elashi, is one of three defendants whose families were displaced decades ago by Israelis.

"Mr. Elashi supported the children and families of Palestine," Moreno said. "He did not support Hamas."

The defense also disputed that Holy Land knowingly funneled money to Hamas through zakat charity committees overseas that allegedly are under the control of the militant group. Further, the attorneys said, the U.S. has never declared the committees to be terrorist fronts, adding that the federal government itself has provided aid to at least one of the charities.

The attorneys also emphasized to the jury that their clients -- who include former Holy Land chairman Mohammed El-Mezain, fundraiser Mufid Abdulqader and New Jersey representative Abdulraham Odeh -- have a guarantee of free speech and association in the U.S.

"You can stand up in front of the courthouse now and read the Hamas charter and say you agree with every word of it, and that is not illegal," said El-Mezain's lawyer Joshua Dratel.

"The most important thing to keep in mind is that Holy Land had nothing to do with politics," Hollander said. "This was a charity. A charity that was needed. A charity that is missed."

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greg.krikorian@latimes.com

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