Holy Land Foundation for Relief and Development
|Mousa Mohammed Abu Marzook |
The Holy Land Foundation (HLF) was the largest Islamic charity in the United States. Headquartered in Richardson, Texas, and run by Palestinian-Americans, it was originally known as Occupied Land Fund. The organization's mission is to "find and implement practical solutions for human suffering through humanitarian programs that impact the lives of the disadvantaged, disinherited, and displaced peoples suffering from man-made and natural disasters."
In December 2001, the U.S. government designated HLF a terrorist organization, seized its assets, and closed the organization. In 2004, a federal grand jury in Dallas, Texas charged HLF and five former officers and employees with providing material support to Hamas and related offenses. The prosecution's theory was that HLF distributed charity through local zakat (charity) committees located in the West Bank that paid stipends to Palestinians who targeted Israeli civilians, or to their families if they committed suicide during the act; that Hamas controlled those zakat committees; and that by distributing charity through Hamas-controlled committees, HLF helped Hamas win the "hearts and minds" of the Palestinian people.
The first trial, in 2007, ended in the partial acquittal of one defendant and a hung jury on all other charges. At a retrial in 2008, the jury found all defendants guilty on all counts. The 2008 trial of the charity leaders was the "largest terrorism financing prosecution in American history." In 2009, the founders of the organization were given sentences of between 15 and 65 years in prison for "funneling $12 million to Hamas."
Designation as a terrorist organization
HLF, originally known as the Occupied Land Fund, was established in California in 1989 as a tax-exempt charity. In 1992, HLF relocated to Richardson, Texas. It had offices in California, New Jersey, and Illinois, and individual representatives scattered throughout the US, the West Bank, and Gaza. Among the founders of the Holy Land Foundation is Mousa Mohammed Abu Marzook, a political leader of Hamas, who provided substantial funds to the Holy Land Foundation in the early 1990s, before Hamas was designated a terrorist organization. HLF reported Marzook's donations on its tax returns. Marzook was deported from the US to Jordan in 1997. He was indicted on August 20, 2004, by a US federal grand jury in Chicago, Illinois. He and two other individuals were charged with a 15-year conspiracy to raise funds for terrorist attacks against Israel. Neither HLF nor any HLF officer was charged in the Chicago indictment.
In the year 2000, HLF raised over $13 million. According to the United States Department of Treasury, HLF supported Hamas activities through direct fund transfers to its offices in the West Bank and Gaza that are affiliated with Hamas, and transfers of funds to Islamic charity committees ("zakat committees") and other charitable organizations that are part of Hamas or controlled by Hamas members. The Department of Treasury also reported that HLF funds were used by Hamas to support schools that served Hamas's ends by encouraging children to become suicide bombers and to recruit suicide bombers by offering support to their families. Edward Abington, Jr., former U.S. consul general in Jerusalem, acted as a defense witness and testified that during his daily CIA briefings he had never been informed that Hamas controlled the Palestinian charity groups mentioned.
The Treasury Department designated HLF as a terrorist organization on December 4, 2001 under President Bush's Executive Order 13224 (Bush). The United States Department of the Treasury's Office of Foreign Asset Control designated HLF as a Specially Designated Global Terrorist, while the European Union froze its European Assets.
Chronology of events
On December 4, 2001, following HLF's designation as a terrorist organization, the assets of the organization were frozen by the FBI and Treasury agents. Treasury officials conceded that a "substantial amount" of the money raised went to worthy causes, but insisted that Holy Land's primary purpose had been to subsidize Hamas. Repeated appeals to the courts by HLF to have the freeze lifted failed.
On July 3, 2007, Muslim Legal Fund of America agreed to fund the defense of the Holy Land Foundation for Relief and Development against allegations by the government that the charity provided "material support" by providing basic necessities (i.e. food, clothing, shelter, etc.) for Palestinians under the Israeli occupation.
On July 27, 2004, a federal grand jury in Dallas, Texas, returned a 42-count indictment against the Holy Land Foundation. Charges included: conspiracy, providing material support to a foreign terrorist organization, tax evasion, and money laundering. The indictment alleged that the Holy Land Foundation provided more than $12.4 million to individuals and organizations linked to Hamas from 1995 to 2001, when their assets were frozen. The indictment also named specific officers of the Holy Land Foundation: President Shukri Abu Baker; Chairman Ghassan Elashi; and Executive Director Haitham Maghawri, and four others: Mohammad el-Mezain, Akram Mishal, Mufid Abdulqader, and Abdulraham Odeh. Five of the seven were arrested. Maghawri and Mishal have not been found, and are considered fugitives.
In December 2004, a federal judge in Chicago ruled that the Holy Land Foundation (along with the Islamic Association of Palestine and the Quranic Literacy Institute) was liable in a $156 million lawsuit for aiding and abetting the militant group Hamas in the death of a 17-year-old American citizen named David Boim. In 2007 this decision was reversed by the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals in Chicago and sent back to the trial court.
In 2008, the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals reheard the case en banc. On November 3, 2008, the 7th Circuit "upheld in large measure a $156 million award to the parents of David Boim, a 17-year-old U.S. citizen murdered by members of Hamas while visiting Israel."
"The en banc court agreed with [Washington Legal Foundation] that those who donate funds to a known terrorist group are responsible under U.S. law for the group's actions – even if the donors contend that they only intended to support the group's "humanitarian" activities."  "The court also rejected the 7th Circuit panel's conclusion that there was not sufficient evidence to find Hamas was responsible the teenager's death."
Testimony and evidence
During the 2007, trial the lawyers representing the foundation said that the Justice Department fabricated quotes and modified transcripts. Critics faulted much of the evidence given during the trial. For example, over defense objection, the government called two anonymous witnesses: an Israeli Security Agency employee who was known to the jurors and the defense as "Avi" and an Israeli Defense Forces officer who was known to the jurors and the defense as "Major Lior." Even the defense lawyers were not permitted to know the names of these witnesses. The government did not allege that HLF paid directly for suicide bombings, but instead that the foundation supported terrorism by sending more than $12 million to charitable groups, known as zakat committees, which build hospitals and feed the poor. The prosecution said the committees were controlled by Hamas, and contributed to terrorism by helping Hamas spread its ideology and recruit supporters. Some of these charitable committees were still receiving US funding through the USAID program as late as 2006. None of the zakat committees were included on the Treasury Department list of designated terrorist organizations.
After 19 days of deliberations, the 2007 jury was unable to come to a definitive conclusion and the case ended in a mistrial. While 200 charges were filed against the defendants, the jurors had acquitted on some counts and were deadlocked on charges ranging from tax violations to providing material support for terrorists. One defendant was acquitted of most of the 32 charges against him. The New York Times reported: "The decision today is 'a stunning setback for the government, there's no other way of looking at it,' said Matthew D. Orwig, a partner at Sonnenschein Nath & Rosenthal who was, until recently, United States Attorney for the Eastern District of Texas. 'This is a message, a two-by-four in the middle of the forehead,' Orwig said. 'If this doesn't get their attention, they are just in complete denial,' he said of Justice Department officials, who he said may not have recognized how difficult such cases are to prosecute."
Experts found the jury's inability to come to a definitive conclusion to be evidence of weakness in the government's ability to provide clear enough evidence against the charity. The LA Times reported that Georgetown University law professor David Cole said: "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". "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."
2008 retrial and convictions
The HLF retrial began on August 18, 2008. The prosecution again presented the two anonymous Israeli witnesses, "Avi" and "Major Lior." In an effort to strengthen its unsuccessful presentation at the first trial, the prosecution added testimony from former National Security Council staff member Steven Simon, from Treasury Department official Robert McBrien, and from Mohamed Shorbagi, who had pleaded guilty to charges unrelated to HLF and was cooperating with the prosecution. The prosecution also placed into evidence documents that, according to "Major Lior," the IDF had recovered from the Palestinian Authority headquarters in Ramallah during an IDF operation in 2002 known as "Operation Defensive Shield."
On November 24, 2008, the government obtained guilty verdicts on all counts against HLF and the five individual defendants in the retrial. HLF was found guilty of giving more than $12 million to support Hamas. The charges on which the jury found the defendants guilty included conspiracy to provide material support to a foreign terrorist organization, providing material support to a foreign terrorist organization, and conspiracy to commit money laundering.
"Today's verdicts are important milestones in America's efforts against financiers of terrorism," Patrick Rowan, assistant attorney general for national security, said after the trial. "This prosecution demonstrates our resolve to ensure that humanitarian relief efforts are not used as a mechanism to disguise and enable support for terrorist groups."
The five convicted individuals were Ghassan Elashi, former CEO Shukri Abu-Baker, Mufid Abdulqader, Abdulrahman Odeh, and Mohammad El-Mezain.
- Abu-Baker was sentenced to 65 years.
- Elashi, also a member of the founding Board of Directors of the Texas branch of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), was sentenced to 65 years.
- Mufid Abdulqader was sentenced to 20 years.
- Abdelrahman Odeh was sentenced to 15 years.
- El-Mezain, former endowments director, sentenced to 15 years.
The defendants appealed their convictions and sentences to the United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit. On December 7, 2011, the court of appeals affirmed the convictions and sentences. The court found that the trial court had erred in admitting each of the additional items of evidence on which the prosecution relied in the second trial (the Simon testimony, the McBrien testimony, the Shorbagi testimony, and the documents recovered from the Palestinian Authority headquarters). But the court of appeals found that the errors in admitting this evidence were harmless (i.e., that the errors did not affect the outcome of the trial).
The defendants petitioned the court of appeals for rehearing. They contended that the four erroneously admitted items of evidence were the key differences between the first trial, where the jury did not return a single guilty verdict, and the second trial, where the jury returned guilty verdicts on every count. The court of appeals denied the petition for rehearing without comment.
In May 2012, Elashi, Baker, Abdulqader, and Odeh filed a petition for writ of certiorari with the United States Supreme Court, challenging their convictions on Sixth Amendment grounds and thereby requesting that the high court review their convictions. The defendants asserted that the prosecution's use of two anonymous witnesses during their trial was impermissible as a matter of law.
British barrister Francis FitzGibbon QC has called the second trial a 'show trial' which relied on 'untested and untestable evidence,' hearsay evidence, prejudicial evidence, and the showing to the jury of additional material which was not part of the evidence at all. These add up to 'patent failings and abuses in the legal process.' FitzGibbon also doubts the strength of the prosecution's case because, among other reasons, the United States Agency for International Development funded the same zakat committees named in the indictment of the HLF, and continued to do so for three years after it had shut down the HLF.
Elashi, HLF chairman, was also vice president of InfoCom Corporation of Richardson, Texas, indicted along with Hamas' Marzook. InfoCom, an Internet company, shared personnel, office space, and board members with the HLF. The two organizations were formed in California around the same time, and both received seed money from Hamas leader Marzook. InfoCom also maintained the web sites for HLF and IAP (Islamic Association of Palestine).
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- Agence France-PresseNovember 24, 2008
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- United States v. El-Mezain, 664 F.3d 467 (5th Cir. 2011), cert. denied, 133 S. Ct. 525 2012).
- Id. at 496, 499-501, 512, 516.
- Id. at 525-35.
- United States v. El-Mezain, No. 09-10560, Appellants' Joint Petition for Rehearing En Banc (filed Jan. 4, 2012).
- United States v. El-Mezain, No. 09-10560, Order Denying Petition for Rehearing (Feb. 17, 2012).
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- Elashi v. United States, No. 11-1390, 133 S. Ct. 525 (2012)
- "Defendants' Petition for Certiorari Rejected, Elashi et al v. United States, October 29, 2012".
- Kampeas, Ron (2012-10-30). "Supreme Court denies appeal of Holy Land Foundation convictions". Jta.org. Retrieved 2014-06-04.
- "Senior Leader of Hamas and Texas Computer Company Indicted for Conspiracy to Violate U.S. Ban on Financial Dealings with Terrorists" (Press release). United States Department of Justice. December 18, 2002. Retrieved November 24, 2008.
- Matthew A. Levitt (August 1, 2002). "Hearing on "The Role of Charities and NGOs in the Financing of Terrorist Activities."". Washington Institute for Near East Policy. Retrieved November 24, 2008.
- "Fact Sheet on the Elashi Brothers and InfoCom". SITE Intelligence Group. December 18, 2002. Retrieved November 24, 2008.[permanent dead link]
- Holy Land Foundation for Relief and Development (Archive)
- The Holy Land Foundation for Relief and Development Anti-Defamation League
- Investigative report by Jordan C. Hirsch regarding the Holy Land Foundation trial The Current, a Columbia University journal
- "Hungry for Justice" - A pro-HLF coalition
- How the US jailed five innocent Palestinians