Heads of US charity convicted on terror-financing charges

Five leaders of the Holy Land Foundation funneled money to organizations controlled by the militant group Hamas, a jury decided Monday.

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A Texas-based Muslim charity, the Holy Land Foundation for Relief and Development, and five of its former leaders were convicted Monday of funneling $12.4 million to the Palestinian Islamic group Hamas between 1995 and 2001. In 1995, the United States designated Hamas as a terrorist group, and donations to the organization are illegal. The Holy Land trial was the biggest terrorism-financing case since Sept. 11, 2001, and marks the government's first victory against terrorism funding.

According to the BBC, District Judge Jorge Solis announced guilty verdicts on all 108 counts in the case.

The former head of the charity, Ghassan Elashi, and the former chief executive, Shukri Abu-Baker, were convicted of 69 counts including money laundering and tax fraud.
Mufid Abdulqader and Abdulrahman Odeh were convicted on three counts of conspiracy, and Mohammed El-Mezain was convicted on one count of conspiracy to support a terrorist organisation.
The Holy Land group was convicted on 32 counts.

The Holy Land Foundation was accused of funding organizations under the control of Hamas, reports the Associated Press (AP).

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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....
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.

According to The New York Times, a federal prosecutor argued against the defendants' claims that the Holy Land Foundation, once the largest Muslim charity in the US, was providing legitimate humanitarian aid.

The prosecutor, Barry Jonas, told jurors in closing arguments last week that they should not be deceived by the foundation's cover of humanitarian work, describing the charities it financed as terrorist recruitment centers that were part of a "womb to the tomb" cycle.

Judge Solis has ordered that the foundation's convicted leaders be detained, citing their ties to the Middle East, reports the AP. A sentencing date has yet to be scheduled, but the punishments are expected to be steep. Leaders of the defunct foundation might also be required to forfeit millions of dollars.

Supporting a terrorist organization carries a maximum 15-year sentence on each count; money laundering carries a maximum 20 years on each conviction.

The accused will appeal the verdicts, reports Reuters.

The accused signaled through a spokesman that they would appeal the verdicts which could see at least two of them face life in prison....
"While we respect the jury's decision, we believe this unjust and un-American verdict will be overturned on appeal," said Khalil Meek, a spokesman with Hungry for Justice, a support group for the accused.

Securing convictions in such cases has previously proved difficult. According to the AP, an original case against the charity ended in a mistrial in October 2007.

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."

According to The Dallas Morning News, the US government first began investigating the Holy Land Foundation in the early 1990s. In 2001, the foundation was shut down and its assets were frozen in the wake of 9/11. Indictments against the foundation's leaders were issued in 2004.

American Muslims have perceived the prosecution of the Holy Land Foundation as an attempt to target their community and complain that the case has been politicized in the context of the war against terrorism, reports Al Jazeera.

Muslim groups say the prosecution has made American Muslims more hesitant to fulfil their religious obligation of helping the needy and the foundation's defenders accuse the government of selectively prosecuting the charity.
"The same charities that these guys gave to the American Red Cross is still giving to, the USAID is still giving to," Mustafaa Carroll of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, said.

But US security officials say this case deals a significant blow against terror, reports The New York Times.

"Money is the lifeblood of terrorism," Richard B. Roper, the United States attorney whose office prosecuted the case, said Monday in a statement. "The jury's decision demonstrates that U.S. citizens will not tolerate those who provide financial support to terrorist organizations."...
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