Is there a way to grind down a complex, multiyear investigation of international financial dealings conducted by the Richardson-based Holy Land Foundation into a palatable argument that an average American jury can digest?
Proving that the foundation is a front group funding terrorists -- that’s the goal of federal prosecutors this week, charged with pulling a failed case, at least so far, out of the proverbial fire. The first trial resulted in a mistrial. This time, prosecutors seem to be more intent on presenting a simpler case…
The federal government shut down the Holy Land Foundation in December 2001, three months after 9-11.
According to court documents, a federal grand jury indicted the Holy Land Foundation for Relief and Development and seven of its principal figures in July 2004 over claims that they provided "material support" to Hamas, designated a foreign terrorist organization since 1995. Allegations were that Shukri Abu-Baker, Ghassan Elashi and others provided funds and resources to Hamas, including $12.4 million sent abroad to create an Islamic Palestine -- to be realized by eliminating Israel through "violent jihad." (Hamas is divided into different wings. HLF would be part of a wing acting like a social-welfare agency but supporting the whole, including the military wing that carries out suicide bombings and other terrorist attacks.)
The meat of the case, however, was financial -- allegations of financial transactions with global terrorists, detainees, activists and families of martyrs, money laundering, conspiracy and filing false tax returns, all hiding behind a charitable facade.
At the time, U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft said that "The United States will ensure that both terrorists and their financiers meet the same, certain justice."
But what if the government was wrong?
In its own words, the foundation "provided relief to Palestinian refugees in Lebanon, Jordan and occupied Palestine. It also aided other countries including Bosnia, Albania, Chechnya, Turkey and the United States, where its officials were involved in helping victims of Texas tornadoes and the Oklahoma City Bombing. They also provided volunteers and services in the Dallas-Fort Worth area. By 2001, its annual budget reached about $14 million."
The foundation denied ties to Hamas and described the feeding of Palestinians, often restricted by martial law, as a "moral duty."
The first trial
With million of dollars invested in a multiyear investigation and prosecution, the trial began in July 2007. A mountain of evidence was presented. But in the end, did jurors merely see a smoke-and-mirrors case? In October, after 19 days of deliberation, Judge A. Joe Fish declared a mistrial. (Actually, there were a large amount of acquittals that became hung juries when two jurors, given a weekend to mull their decisions, made 11th-hour reversals of their votes.)
In the case of one defendant, Mohammed El-Mezain, the jury hung on one count and acquitted on the others.
Because of the time, money and resources involved, the failure to get guilty verdicts was considered by many to be a stunning defeat for the government.
The new trial
Prosecutors opted to simplify their case by dropping many charges against the more peripheral defendants, deciding to focus on Abu-Baker and Elashi. Jury selection began this week in U.S. District Judge Jorge A. Solis’ court. Expectations are that the trial will begin in earnest with opening statements later this week or on Monday.
The same mindset?
When the Holy Land Foundation was shut down, Americans were more emotional about the war on terror. The Patriot Act was two months old. Homeland Security -- and its offshoot agencies -- had not yet been formed. National polls indicated that many Americans feared that the government could not keep them safe, and a majority expected a new terrorist attack. Discrimination against Muslims and Arab-Americans was more prevalent, based on hate-crime reports…
"I believe most Americans are fair-minded, barring fear doesn’t overcome them," said Mustafaa Carroll, executive director of the Dallas-Fort Worth chapter for the Council on American-Islamic Relations.