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Weak case seen in failed trial of charity

Muslim relief group was shut based on charges that ended in mistrial.

November 04, 2007|Greg Krikorian | Times Staff Writer

DALLAS — While the U.S. Justice Department ponders how it will retry its troubled terrorism finance case against a now- defunct Muslim charity, debris from the recent mistrial here shows signs of piling up at the White House doorstep.

The nation's biggest terrorism finance case ended so badly for the government that it has thrown into question the Bush administration's original order to shut down the Holy Land Foundation for Relief and Development six years ago.

Back then, President Bush accused the charity of aiding Palestinian terrorists. But similar allegations presented by federal prosecutors during the two-month trial in the president's home state fell dramatically short of convincing a Texas jury.

The panel of eight women and four men failed to convict Holy Land or any of its five accused former officials on any of their 200 combined criminal counts of supporting terrorists. It was the first time the administration's view of the charity had been argued in court because the original executive order shuttering Holy Land was never subjected to full judicial review.

Though attorneys and all five defendants in the case are still bound by a gag order, legal observers and three jurors say the recent trial exposed significant weaknesses in the government's 15-year, multimillion-dollar investigation of Holy Land.

Before the mistrial was declared, vote tallies read in open court showed that the jury had acquitted one defendant on all counts and two others on many counts, and was deadlocked on convicting the remaining defendants of anything. Jurors later interviewed by The Times said they were far from agreement on any convictions.

"I kept expecting the government to come up with something, and it never did," juror Nanette Scroggins, a retired claims adjuster, said in her only interview about the case. "From what I saw, this was about Muslims raising money to support Muslims, and I don't see anything wrong with that."

Fellow juror William Neal, an art director who said his father worked in military intelligence, agreed that the government never produced "any clear evidence linking" Holy Land funding to the U.S.-designated terrorist group Hamas.

"If the government can shut them down and then not convince a jury the group is guilty of any wrongdoing, then there is something wrong with the process," Georgetown University law professor David Cole said.

George Washington University law professor Jonathan Turley said the criminal trial derailed the government's long-publicized assertions about Holy Land.

"From the beginning, the allegations were highly suspect and only got worse," said Turley, who has handled a number of national security cases.

Indeed, Turley said, if the government had begun with the troubled criminal case, it might never have succeeded in closing down the foundation administratively because its disputed evidence would have come to light years ago.

Such criticisms echoed those of Holy Land lawyers who had long complained that the charity was railroaded out of existence without due process of law and based on secret evidence.

"Before a person's domestic pet can be taken away for being vicious, they are at least entitled to a hearing. So what happened to Holy Land wouldn't happen to a dog," John Boyd, one of Holy Land's lawyers, said in an interview more than a year before the court imposed a continuing gag order.

Ironically, the government's decision to seek criminal sanctions may have succeeded most in exposing weaknesses in the administration's overarching case against Holy Land. Georgetown's Cole said prosecutors failed to produce evidence that the charity provided "one penny to support terrorist activities."

And in the end, despite years of FBI surveillance, wiretaps and seized documents, the case presented in court largely came down to conflicting testimony between an anonymous Israeli security official and a former American diplomat over which neighborhood charities in the Gaza Strip and West Bank were or were not affiliated with Hamas.

The government's allegations not only proved unpersuasive but engendered skepticism among some jurors.

"The whole case was based on assumptions that were based on suspicions," said juror Scroggins, who added: "If they had been a Christian or Jewish group, I don't think [prosecutors] would have brought charges against them."

An entrenched political, social and military organization among Palestinians, the Islamic militant group Hamas has long been an adversary of Israel and has been designated a terrorist organization by the U.S. since 1995. Last year, it won Palestinian parliamentary elections and now controls the Gaza Strip, home to 1.5 million people.

A White House spokesman declined to comment about the government's actions against Holy Land and referred calls to the Department of Justice, where a press official said he was precluded from making statements by the judge's gag order.

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