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108 guilty verdicts for Muslim charity

Texas jurors agree with government charges that the Holy Land Foundation funneled money to Hamas.

November 25, 2008|Paul J. Weber | Weber is a writer for the Associated Press.

DALLAS — A Muslim charity and five of its former leaders were convicted Monday of funneling millions of dollars to the Palestinian militant group Hamas -- a long-sought victory in the government's fight against terrorism funding.

U.S. District Judge Jorge A. Solis announced the guilty verdicts on all 108 counts 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. It was the biggest terrorism financing case since the Sept. 11 attacks.

The convictions follow the collapse of Holy Land's first trial last year and defeats in other cases the government tried to build. President Bush had personally announced the freezing of Holy Land's assets in 2001, calling the action "another step in the war on terrorism."

After Monday's verdict, family members showed little visible reaction until the jury left. Several women sobbed loudly.

"My dad's not a criminal!" one nearly inconsolable woman said loudly. Court personnel told the family to calm her down, and as family members rushed her out of the courtroom, she said, "They treated him like an animal."

Ghassan Elashi, Holy Land's former chairman, and Shukri Abu Baker, the chief executive, were convicted of a combined 69 counts, including supporting a specially designated terrorist, money laundering and tax fraud.

Mufid Abdulqader and Abdulraham Odeh were convicted of three counts of conspiracy, and Mohammed El-Mezain was convicted of one count of conspiracy to support a terrorist organization. Holy Land was convicted of all 32 counts.

A sentencing date hasn't been scheduled, but the punishments could be steep. Supporting a terrorist organization carries a maximum 15-year sentence on each count; money laundering carries a maximum 20 years on each conviction.

Solis ordered the Holy Land leaders detained, citing the long prison terms they may face and their ties to the Middle East.

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. Government officials raided Holy Land's headquarters in December 2001 and shut it down.

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. 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 were 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," Baker's attorney Theresa Duncan said during closing arguments.

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 votes.

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 illustrated the size of the case, as did the more than one hour that Solis needed to read aloud the indictment.

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