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Despite No Links to Violence, Founders of Muslim Charity Sentenced to Lengthy Terms for Donations to Needy Palestinians in Occupied Territories

StoryMay 29, 2009
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Nancy Hollander

attorney for former Holy Land CEO Shukri Abu Baker.

Noor Elashi

daughter of Ghassan Elashi, Holy Land board chairman who was sentenced to sixty-five years in prison.

Five founders of the Holy Land Foundation, once the nation’s largest Muslim charity, have received prison terms of up to sixty-five years on charges of supporting the Palestinian group Hamas. The five were never accused of supporting violence and were convicted for funding charities that aided needy Palestinians. The government’s case relied on Israeli intelligence as well as disputed documents and electronic surveillance gathered by the FBI over a span of fifteen years. We speak to Noor Elashi, daughter of Ghassan Elashi, the chair of the Holy Land Foundation who was sentenced to sixty-five years; and Nancy Hollander, a defense attorney who represented former Holy Land CEO Shukri Abu Baker. [includes rush transcript]

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.


Five founders of a Muslim charity have been sentenced to lengthy prison terms in a controversial case that began nearly ten years ago. The Holy Land Foundation, based in a Dallas suburb, was the biggest Muslim charity in the United States before the Bush administration shut it down in 2001. Its five founders were convicted last November on charges of funneling money to the Palestinian group Hamas. The US government declared Hamas a terrorist organization in 1995.

It was the second trial against the Holy Land Foundation’s five leaders after the first ended in a mistrial. The government’s case relied on Israeli intelligence as well as disputed documents and electronic surveillance gathered by the FBI over a span of fifteen years.


Defendants Ghassan Elashi and Shukri Abu Baker each received sixty-five-year prison sentences. At his sentencing hearing, Elashi said, “Nothing was more rewarding than…turning the charitable contributions of American Muslims into life assistance for the Palestinians. We gave the essentials of life: oil, rice, flour. The occupation was providing them with death and destruction.” Another defendant, Mohammad El-Mezain, was sentenced to fifteen years in prison. He was found guilty of supporting Hamas but acquitted on thirty-one other charges. Volunteer fundraiser Mufid Abdulqader was sentenced to twenty years in prison. And the fifth defendant, Abdulrahman Odeh, was sentenced to fifteen years in prison. All five defendants plan to file appeals.

We go now to Dallas, where we’re joined by Noor Elashi. She’s the daughter of Ghassan Elashi, the chair of the Holy Land Foundation who was sentenced to sixty-five years.

And joining us from her home in Albuquerque via Democracy Now! video stream is Nancy Hollander, a defense attorney who represented former Holy Land CEO Shukri Abu Baker.

We invited Jim Jacks, the lead prosecutor in the case, on the show, but his office declined.

Noor, let’s begin with you. When the sentencing happened, your dad got sixty-five years in prison. Your response?


Well, thank you, first of all, Amy, for having me on the show.

My response to that is basically, to me, on Wednesday, the Holy Land Five, my father and the Holy Land Five, became the Nelson Mandelas of the twenty-first century. They’re merely political prisoners caught in this disillusioned web, widely known by the Bush administration as the war on terror.

Sixty-five years seems like a big number, but it’s really nothing but a number to me. I do — I have faith that during the appeal process, under a less politicized Justice Department under the new administration, that truth will come out. And truth is a much stronger, way more powerful — truth is basically way more powerful than the prosecution’s ongoing tactic of fear. And truth will come out under this less politicized Justice Department.


Noor Elashi, tell us about your father. When did he come to the United States, and why did he decide to found the Holy Land Foundation?


My dad came to the US in the early ’80s. He got his master’s degree from the University of Miami and thus started a family. And, you know, in the late ’80s, during the Intifada, the uprising, he saw, like many Americans, images on television that just really went straight to his heart. And he, being Palestinian, originally Palestinian, took it to heart and felt like, you know, he had to do something. And that is, after seeing thousands of — the images of thousands of trees being uprooted, you know, many political prisoners in Palestine, many homes being demolished, he said there’s definitely a need there, a humanitarian need. There’s an economic crisis. And therefore, he and a few — a couple other people founded the Holy Land Foundation, which, like you mentioned earlier, became the largest Muslim charity in this country until the Bush administration shut it down.


Nancy Hollander, you’re the attorney for the former Holy Land CEO, Holy Land Foundation CEO Shukri Abu Baker. Just looking at the time line for the whole Holy Land case: you have January ’89, the organization that was renamed Holy Land Foundation is founded by Noor’s father, Ghassan Elashi, and others to assist Palestinians affected by the Intifada, ’89; 1992, Holy Land moves its headquarters to Richardson, Texas; ’95, the US government declares Hamas a terrorist organization; ’99, the government says it’s investigating alleged financial ties between Holy Land and Hamas dating back to 1996. Explain this and what evidence the government presented on the connection between Holy Land and Hamas.


Well, the government’s allegations — and this is extremely important, Amy — the government’s allegations all along and what the jury found was that Holy Land provided charity. Every dime went to charity. It went through sometimes directly to individuals and sometimes through charity committees, which are called Zakat committees. This is part of Islamic law that Muslims must tithe, and they often do it through these committees. These committees are throughout the Muslim world and in Palestine. And Holy Land gave money, large sums of money, to these Zakat committees in all these local communities, and then that was distributed to individuals, mostly orphans or families in need.

There was never any allegation that any money went any where other than to charity. The government’s position was that these particular charities were associated with or controlled by Hamas. And it’s important to understand that the United States government, through USAID, continued to give money to the same charities for years after Holy Land was closed. But that’s what the allegation was all the way along. Although the government spent a great deal of time in the trial talking about and showing the jury horrific pictures of violent acts that Hamas did, our clients were not accused of nor convicted of one single act of violence.


So, explain what they were convicted of.


They were convicted of providing material support to Hamas, which includes, under the US statutes, providing charity to associations and organizations that are associated with or controlled by Hamas. The issue of whether these particular charities were controlled by Hamas, we believe to this day that they were not. And the only evidence that they were came from a secret witness from Israel who claimed to be a lawyer with the Israeli Shin Bet, but we were never able to learn anything about him, because he was presented with a pseudonym, and we weren’t allowed to know anything about him.


The Shin Bet being the Israeli intelligence.


Yes, yes, correct. And that’s where they got the information.

The government also claimed that by providing charity, Holy Land was assisting Hamas in winning the hearts and minds of the people. There was no evidence of that, of course. And Holy Land was closed in 2001. And although the government tried to make the leap to Hamas winning a large number of seats in the election in 2006, that was five years later. And the government never had an answer, during trial or at sentencing when we brought this up, to explain that USAID gave money, for example, $47,000 to the Qalqilya Zakat Committee in December of 2004, and why that didn’t contribute to the hearts and minds theory, if in fact that theory makes any sense, which historically and politically it doesn’t.


Nancy Hollander, the first trial in 2007 ended in a mistrial, and there was the second one that ended in conviction. Any sense on your part what swayed the jury in the second trial? And also, were you surprised by the severity of the sentences?


Well, on your first question, the government always benefits when it gets a second chance. It has seen the defense. It had another year to gather more evidence, to look through the ten years of FISA wiretaps that our clients were never allowed to look at, by the way, even though they were their statements, to attempt to find more evidence. All they really found, because there was no evidence of anything other than charity, all they found was more violence, and they put on more violence.

In terms of the sentence, no, I wasn’t surprised at it, but I was horrified by it, to the thought that somebody gets sixty-five years for providing charity is really shameful, and I believe this case will go down in history, as have others, like Korematsu, for example, as a shameful day. We have all filed — all the defendants have filed their notices of appeal, and all will be appealed. And we believe we will be vindicated on appeal, because this was a grossly unfair trial.


Nancy Hollander, you used the argument — you compared — you looked at the case of Ali Saleh Kahlah al-Marri to persuade the judge to go easy on your client, Shukri Abu Baker, saying that he pleaded guilty in April to one count of conspiracy to provide material support to al-Qaeda. You said, “This is a man who admits he came to the US as a sleeper agent, and the government believes fifteen years is sufficient.” The judge retorted, “Raising millions of dollars to fund terrorism, that’s a different situation.” He said, “Al-Marri is an example of someone who wanted to commit an act of terrorism. As bad as that is, this is support over the years.” And he sentenced your client, Abu Baker, to sixty-five years. Your response?


It’s just beyond me. It’s remarkable. My client was convicted of providing charity. There was not, in ten years of wiretapping his home, his office, looking at his faxes, listening to everything he said, there was not one word out of his mouth about violence to anyone or about support for Hamas. He provided charity. That’s what he was convicted of. And to say that someone or these people who provide charity should get a sentence six, you know, four or five times longer than someone who professes to come to the United States with a purpose in mind that’s clearly violence shows essentially that these people were convicted because they were Palestinians.


I’d like to ask Noor Elashi — you, yourself, are a journalist. Could you comment about the media’s coverage, the mainstream media coverage, of this trial and how that affected the atmosphere around the trial?


Yeah. I’m actually highly disappointed, but I’m not surprised. From the very beginning of the case, the media coverage has been very biased, including many Israeli bloggers and people obviously anti-Muslim, anti-Palestinian in the news articles. For example, on sentencing day, I went to the New York Times website, the LA Times, the Washington Post, saw nothing. I mean, the Associated Press was there. But overall, this definitely — this case, from the very beginning, the arrests, the first trial, the second trial, I think deserves a lot more attention.

And, Amy, you one time said in one of your — in your book tour, I believe, that Americans are sympathetic people. And I do honestly believe that. And I think that if this case were to be covered more widely and received better coverage, I feel like Americans will sympathize and there will be an outcry, not only from Americans, but just an international outcry.


Are you able to see your father in jail?


Yes, I am. We are able to visit him once a week. And actually, the way that’s set up, and this was also set up on purpose, the families are not allowed to see the defendants all at the same time. They’ve set it up in different times. So, when I go see my dad, I’m not really allowed to see anybody else, any of the other defendants or their families. They set it up in a way where we can only see our father that one time. But he’s a very strong person. As I sat there on Wednesday watching him —


We have five seconds.


OK, he’s a very strong person, and I just really admire him. And he’s my hero.


Noor Elashi, I want to thank you for being with us, daughter of Ghassan Elashi. She’s also a former reporter with the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. And thanks to Nancy Hollander.

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