Trial Against U.S. Muslim Charity Begins

Noor Elashi wants to "shatter stereotypes" about Muslims and Arabs. It's one of the reasons she pursued a career in journalism. A Palestinian-American cub reporter at the Fort Worth (Texas) Star-Telegram, Elashi, 21, bristles at the seemingly endless questions she gets about Muslims' views on terrorism and suicide bombing. "It's really frustrating," she says. "We are totally against anything to do with violence or terror. Just like most people in this world, we're very peaceful people."

Elashi may be getting those questions more often than a typical Muslim American. Her father, Ghassan Elashi, stands accused of supporting the Palestinian militant group Hamas. Along with other fellow officers of the Richardson, Texas-based Holy Land Foundation—which was once the nation's largest Islamic charity—Elashi faces charges of funneling $12.4 million to the Palestinian group since the U.S. government declared it a terrorist organization in 1995. As the defendants' trial got underway in Dallas this week, rhetoric on both sides grew heated. While the federal government calls the case the biggest terrorism-financing case in U.S. history, the defendants, as well as many Muslim organizations, decry it as a politically motivated witch hunt and the latest outbreak of post-9/11 "Islamophobia."

Before federal authorities shuttered the Holy Land Foundation in 2001 (shortly after 9/11), the charity was an effective fund-raiser. After its founding in 1988, it solicited more than $57 million—all of which went for humanitarian aid, the group says. Among the beneficiaries of such donations, according to the foundation: Palestinian medical and dental clinics, orphanages, schools, refugee camps and community centers.

But the U.S. government contends that such charity work was merely a cover. "In fact," the 2004 indictment states, "the donations were distributed to individuals associated with, and organizations controlled by, Hamas." Some of the money, according to the indictment, was directed to the families of suicide bombers. In his opening statements Tuesday, Assistant U.S. Attorney James Jacks alleged that the foundation's leaders lied about their activities 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."

Defense lawyers vigorously dispute this. The Holy Land Foundation was a legitimate charity, they say, one that also gave to victims of Texas tornadoes, the Oklahoma City bombing and the Turkish earthquakes. The attorneys say the group used zakat (charity) committees licensed by the Israeli government to distribute aid to the Palestinian people. "Its focus was on children in need," said Nancy Hollander, attorney for Holy Land CEO Shukri Abu Baker, during court proceedings this week.

Moreover, the defense has pointed to a number of irregularities in the evidence that has surfaced so far. According to a 2004 complaint filed by Holy Land's attorneys, the FBI flagged the Holy Land Foundation for contributing to a Hamas-affiliated hospital in the Palestinian territories without mentioning that the U.S. Agency for International Development had helped the same hospital. Plus, before the case went to trial, it was revealed that a government translation of supposed comments by Holy Land Foundation officers—that "even Jesus Christ had called the Jews and their high priests ... the sons of snakes and scorpions"—was wrong; the original unabridged statement contained no such language, defense lawyers say. The government is investigating the error but has not yet explained the discrepancy.

Each of the five defendants has pleaded not guilty. While Elashi insists that he does not support violence, he was previously convicted of shipping computer equipment to Libya and Syria (illegal under federal law) through a company he ran with his brothers and of wiring money to Hamas's deputy political bureau chief in Syria. The Elashi family says that money was actually an annuity payment to the Hamas official's wife, who is a cousin. Elashi began serving a six-and-a-half-year prison sentence in April. Another defendant, Abdulrahman Odeh, the foundation's New Jersey representative, has allegedly described, according to prosecutors, Hamas suicide bombings as "beautiful operations," and his Holy Land office was allegedly papered with violent anti-Israel propaganda. "If it were a crime to want bad things to happen to Israel, we'd be dead in the water," Odeh's attorney, Greg Westfall, told the court. But Westfall said he aims to help jurors understand the pain of decades of Israeli occupation and Palestinian exile. The others indicted in the case are CEO Abu Baker, director of endowments Mohammed El-Mezain and top fund-raiser Mufid Abdulqater. Two others, Haitham Maghawri and Akram Mishal, fled the country and are considered fugitives, according to authorities.

Federal prosecutors face a difficult task. They must prove that the defendants knew that the money they gave to third-party organizations would be passed on to Hamas. In similar cases brought by the Feds in Illinois and Florida, the government failed to "connect the dots," as one judge put it. The current case, which is expected to last several months, will require jurors to sift through a decade's worth of evidence, countless wiretapped conversations and the testimony of Israeli intelligence agents.

Many Muslims have criticized the way the Feds have pursued their case. Several well-respected national Muslim American organizations are included in a list of 300 "unindicted co-conspirators." Among them: the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), the nation's largest Muslim advocacy group; the Islamic Society of North America, the country's largest Muslim educational source, and the North American Islamic Trust, the largest holding company of deeds to hundreds of mosques, Islamic centers and schools in the United States. "We are not violent, we condemn terror in every shape or fashion," says Khalil Meek, vice president of CAIR and president of the Muslim Legal Fund of America. "They are trying to marginalize the Muslim voice. These are mainstream, moderate, productive American Muslim institutions that are being effectively muted or stigmatized." The government hasn't explained why these groups are listed as co-conspirators, but it may be because Elashi also opened the Texas chapter of CAIR. Another theory is that prosecutors want to be able to include comments from leaders of those organizations without it being hearsay.

Muslim groups also lament that the Holy Land Foundation's closure has had what they call a chilling effect on Muslim charitable giving, one of the five pillars of Islam. Though no major U.S.-based Muslim charities have been convicted of financing terrorism, several have been harassed into nonexistence, according to representatives of the Muslim Legal Fund of America. "Muslims are afraid to give money to any religious organization for fear that they will later be held liable for their philanthropic contributions under the USA Patriot Act," says Beth Freed, a spokesperson for the legal fund, which is helping to pay for Elashi's defense.

Some Jewish groups dispute the argument that the case is broadly maligning Muslims. "This has nothing to do with trying to outlaw or shame an entire group of people," says Oren Segal, codirector of the Anti-Defamation League's Center on Extremism. "This is about people who raise funds for terrorists, period." The ADL has been following the Holy Land Foundation investigation since 1997. "There were an awful lot of innocent people who thought they were giving to a legitimate charity," says Mark Briskman, the ADL's regional director in Dallas. But "the key issue is really the organizers who clearly knew what this was all about."

No doubt such allegations incense Elashi's daughter, Noor. In 2005, she won a prize at the Mayborn Literary Nonfiction Writers Conference for her essay about her father's arrest. In it, she described the early-morning pounding on the door, how her father was taken away, how he shuffled into court in an orange jumpsuit and chains. "I know my father is innocent, and that his only crimes were helping feed Palestinian orphans and being an Arab-American," she wrote. Now it's up to the court to decide if Noor is right or wrong.