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Islamic charity leaders convicted in terror financing case

  • Story Highlights
  • 5 Holy Land Foundation leaders were convicted of helping funnel money to Hamas
  • The verdict ends a seven-year battle between the Texas-based charity and the U.S.
  • Justice Department hails victory; international law experts say case was weak
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By Ashley Fantz and Taylor Gandossy
CNN
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(CNN) -- A jury's conviction Monday of former leaders of an Islamic charity for helping finance Hamas was cheered as a success for the Bush administration. But it was assailed by First Amendment attorneys and international law experts who said the case was weak and overzealously prosecuted.

Friends and family of members of the Holy Land Foundation leave court Monday in Dallas, Texas.

Five men -- once leaders of the now-defunct Holy Land Foundation for Relief and Development -- were found guilty in a federal court in Texas on charges of conspiring to support terrorism and launder money for Hamas.

Hamas controls the Palestinian territory of Gaza. The U.S. and European Union consider it a terrorist organization.

Holy Land, once one of the nation's largest Islamic charities, and two of its former leaders -- Shukri Abu Baker and Ghassan Elashi -- were convicted on charges of providing material support and resources, including money and goods, to a foreign terrorist organization.

In addition, Abu Baker and Elashi were convicted on tax fraud charges. There were 108 counts in all.

The government accused Holy Land of funneling some $12.4 million to Hamas in the guise of charitable donations.

Abu Baker, Elashi, Mohammad El-Mezain, Mufid Abdulqader and Abdulrahman Odeh are expected to face "substantial" prison sentences, the Justice Department said.

The Justice Department said it had investigated the group for about 15 years. It refiled charges after an initial trial in October 2007 ended in a mistrial after 19 days.

The jury in this second trial, which lasted about two months, deliberated for eight days.

"Money is the lifeblood of terrorism," U.S. Attorney Richard Roper said in a written statement. "The jury's decision demonstrates that U.S. citizens will not tolerate those who provide financial support to terrorist organizations."

The Bush administration shut down Holy Land in 2001 and froze its assets, charging that it was raising millions of dollars for Hamas, which the United States designated a terrorist organization in 1995.

Before the government shut down the foundation, which was based in the Dallas suburb of Richardson, Holy Land was the largest U.S. Islamic charity.

"For many years, the Holy Land Foundation used the guise of charity to raise and funnel millions of dollars to the infrastructure of the Hamas terror organization," said Patrick Rowan, assistant attorney general for national security. "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."

John Boyd, a lawyer for Abu Baker, said the verdict is "a great injustice and it will certainly be appealed."

There is "no evidence that any of Holy Land Foundation's funds went to anything but charity," he said.

"It's just the government's position that the local charity organizations with whom the Holy Land Foundation were involved with were, in the government's view, affiliated with Hamas. It is also uncontested that our government and other non-Islamic charities routinely worked with those same local organizations before, during and after the period covered by the indictment."

The indictment covered 1997 to 2001, he said.

The Anti-Defamation League, a group that fights anti-Semitism and other forms of bigotry, welcomed the convictions. The verdict "sends a strong and welcome signal that the United States will not be permitted to be a safe harbor for those who fund terrorism," according to a statement on the ADL's Web site attributed to the organization's director, Mark L. Briskman.

But George Washington University law professor Jonathan Turley, long critical of the Bush administration's handling of the Holy Land case, called the case an "example of excessive and vexatious prosecution."

"Many Muslims believe the intention was to chill Muslim charities in the U.S., and that is exactly what happened," he said.

"The truth is, it's hard to get any money to the people who need it because you are talking about donations going to a part of the world where associations are very fluid and ambiguous," he said. "Areas of Palestine are controlled by Hamas and if you want charities to go in, you will give money to outlets that are probably somehow associated with Hamas."

A Web site set up for the defendants' family and friends to express their views states that Holy Land "never funded violence."

"It simply provided food, clothes, shelter, medical supplies and education to the suffering people in Palestine and other countries," according to Freedomtogive.com.

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