US trial begins for group accused of aiding Hamas

Muslim charity allegedly funneled millions of dollars to help Hamas try to defeat Israel and replace it with an Islamic state.

holy land 224.88 (photo credit: AP [file])
holy land 224.88
(photo credit: AP [file])
A Muslim charity in the United States funneled millions of dollars to the Middle East to help Hamas try to defeat Israel and replace it with an Islamic state, a US prosecutor told a jury Tuesday. Prosecutor James T. Jacks made the charge as the government opened its case against the Holy Land Foundation for Relief and Development and five of its top officials. The Holy Land case is one of the highest-profile anti-terrorism prosecutions since the 2001 terrorist attacks in New York and Washington. The officials are charged with aiding terrorists, conspiracy and money laundering. The trial in federal district court is expected to last several months and caps an FBI investigation that lasted more than a decade and spanned half the world. Defense attorneys say Holy Land, once the largest Muslim charity in the United States, supported humanitarian efforts in Palestinian neighborhoods and did not knowingly aid Hamas. Contact with Hamas has been illegal since 1995. "Holy Land had nothing to do with politics. Its focus was on children in need," said Nancy Hollander, lawyer for Shukri Abu Baker, Holy Land's chief executive. Hollander said Abu Baker agreed with Hamas on some issues, such as opposing a US-backed peace agreement in 1993, but not others. "He does not believe a suicide bomber can ever be a martyr," she said. Defense lawyers also argued that a federal agency, the US Agency for International Development, worked with some of the same Middle Eastern charity groups - akats -that Holy Land did, and that none appeared on terrorism watch lists. Holy Land approached US officials, including prosecutor Jacks, asking how to stay on the right side of the law while working in the Middle East, Hollander said. "They were never told to stop working with anyone," she said. But, Jacks said prosecutors would show that Hamas controlled the groups that Holy Land funded, and the charity's leaders knew it. Jacks said Holy Land was created specifically to raise money for Hamas but that the charity's leaders lied about their purpose "because to tell the truth is to reveal what they were all about the destruction of the state of Israel and replacing it with a Palestinian Islamic state." The five men on trial are not accused of being terrorists. Rather, they are charged with funneling $36 million to individuals and groups tied to Hamas, including $12.4 million after former President Bill Clinton designated Hamas a terrorist group in 1995, which made contact with the group illegal. Some of the money went to support the families of suicide bombers, according to authorities. Federal agents raided Holy Land's offices in December 2001. President George W. Bush personally announced the seizure of the charity's assets, declaring that, "The net is closing" on those who fund terrorism. The Justice Department has had a mixed record in other cases. Trials in Chicago and Florida ended with acquittals of three defendants charged with helping fund Hamas, although they were convicted of lesser charges. In February, the spiritual leader of a mosque in the state of Georgia was sentenced to nearly eight years in prison after he admitted helping Hamas. Prosecutors said the man sent donations to Holy Land knowing it would go to Hamas. Prosecutors said in court filings they would probably call the Georgia imam, Mohamed Shorbagi, as a witness against Holy Land.