Judge due to rule on Holy Land defense challenge

A legal question that brought the Holy Land Foundation terrorism financing case to a standstill last week, when defense attorneys attacked mounting government evidence linking the defendants to Islamic extremists, is expected to be addressed when the trial resumes today.

U.S. District Judge Jorge Solis is expected to decide today whether jurors were improperly prejudiced by Wednesday's testimony about InfoCom, the former computer services company run by defendant Ghassan Elashi and his family.

In 2005, Mr. Elashi and two of his brothers were convicted of laundering $250,000 that suspected Hamas terrorist leader Mousa Abu Marzook gave to InfoCom.

Prosecutors argue that using the InfoCom evidence does not constitute double jeopardy, as defense attorneys allege. Rather, the government says, the evidence is relevant in proving the current allegations: that the defendants engaged in an international conspiracy to funnel millions of dollars overseas to Hamas, which has been deemed a Palestinian terrorist group by the U.S.

The U.S. made supporting Hamas illegal in 1995. Defense attorneys say Holy Land was a legitimate charity with no connection to terrorists.

Defense attorneys, who note that the government avoided presenting the InfoCom evidence in last year's trial, are asking Judge Solis to drop some of the 35 counts against Mr. Elashi. Short of that, they want the judge to strike the evidence from the record or tell jurors that they can only use the evidence in a limited way, the alternative that prosecutors favor.

Bugged meeting

Earlier during week three of testimony in the retrial, FBI Special Agent Lara Burns labeled the Council on American-Islamic Relations a front group for Hamas, an allegation the group has denied.

CAIR is one of about 300 unindicted co-conspirators named in the Holy Land case. The group has asked to be removed from the list, which it says taints its civil rights work on behalf of American Muslims.

Testimony has suggested that CAIR's founder, Omar Ahmad, and its current executive director, Nihad Awad, participated in a 1993 meeting of purported Hamas sympathizers. Some Holy Land defendants attended the Philadelphia meeting, bugged by the FBI .

At the meeting, former Holy Land CEO Shukri Abu Baker talked about the need for more secular, mainstream organizations in America, "which can benefit from a new atmosphere, one whose Islamic hue is not very conspicuous," according to a transcript.

When asked by prosecutor Barry Jonas whether any groups formed after the gathering fit this mold, Agent Burns cited CAIR.

"Just to be sure," said Joshua Dratel, attorney for defendant Mohammad El-Mezain, holding up a sign with the words "Council on American-Islamic Relations" scrawled across it, "this is the one with the inconspicuous Islamist hue?"

Second FBI agent

FBI Special Agent Robert Miranda also testified last week, taking jurors through a list of Islamic clerics that Holy Land allegedly brought to the U.S. to headline fundraising festivals. Hamas co-founder Mahmoud al-Zahar and Jamil Hamami were among those on the foundation's speaker list, Agent Miranda said. Prosecutor Jim Jacks pointed to each one on a huge chart titled "Hamas Leaders In The 1990s."

Two other alleged Hamas leaders on that chart, Mohammed Siam and Hamed Bitawi, participated in a Holy Land-sponsored conference call, made in 1997, after the U.S. designated Hamas a terrorist organization. Such calls, another method by which the foundation used overseas speakers to help raise money, were joined by people in Islamic centers across the U.S., the FBI says.

"We can also say that the Islamic world is undergoing a stage of changing from weakness to strength and to the love of martyrdom," said Kamal al-Hilbawi, a former spokesman for Hamas' parent organization the Muslim Brotherhood, according to what was introduced as a transcript of the intercepted call. He lauded Yehya Ayyash, allegedly a Hamas bomb maker who helped perfect the suicide belt, Hamas spiritual founder Sheikh Ahmed Yassin and Mr. Marzook for their "understanding, knowledge, bravery, strength and determination."

He helped close the call with a prayer, according to the prosecution. "Redeem us with your mercy for the infidel people. Our God, block their money and tighten their hearts so that they won't believe until they see painful torture."

The moderator then urged listeners to call Holy Land's toll free number to donate money.

"Is there a reference to charity in this call?" Mr. Jacks asked Agent Miranda.

"I think you'd have to be creative to find it," he answered.

Posted October 14, 2008,  The Dallas Morning News