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The Holy Land Five

By: 
Candice Bernd
Date Published: 
October 1, 2009

As the five defendants of the Holy Land Foundation case were being sentenced on May 27, 2009, in Dallas, Texas, members of the local Muslim community came together to rally outside the Earle Cabell Federal building.  They held a banner that read “feeding children is not a crime” and wore black shirts with the words “Free the Holy Land Five.”

A jury had convicted the men—now known internationally as the Holy Land Five— on 108 criminal counts of supporting terrorist organizations, money laundering, and tax fraud. The trial had become the largest terrorism financing case in the US since Sept 11, 2001, and the outcome could have wide repercussions. The Holy Land Foundation, founded in 1988, was the largest Muslim charity in the US. The case drew national attention across the US and, along with the continuing persecution of university professor and community activist Sami Al-Arian, represents the most high profile example of the government’s campaign to target and criminalize Muslim charities in the name of national security.

The Holy Land Five were convicted on “material support of terrorist organizations” for openly sending money, food, clothing, medical, and school supplies to Palestinians via Palestinian charities called Zakat committees. Three of the five men received the maximum sentence possible. Ghassan Elashi, 55, received 65 years on 35 counts; Shukri Abu Baker, 50, received 65 years on 34 counts; Mohammad El-Mezain, 55, was given 15 years on a single count. The other two, Mufid Abdulqader, 49, and Abdulrahman Odeh, 49, received 20 years and 15 years respectively, each on three counts.

The government’s first attempt to convict these men ended in a mistrial back in October of 2007. After 19 days of deliberation and a dramatic four-day wait until the final verdict was read, the jury was deadlocked on most of the counts. Three of the defendants, Mohammad El-Mezain, Mufid Abdulqader and Abdulrahman Odeh, were acquitted on nearly all charges after the first two-month long trial ended with jurors asking questions about the validity of the evidence.

The government, however, decided to keep prosecuting the five men. Zainab Abdulqader, daughter of defendant Mufid Abdulqader noted, “My dad was the only one who was found completely innocent in the first trial…. in the second trial he was found guilty of every charge. How can something like that happen?”

The Bush administration claimed that the charity was funding Hamas and shut it down by executive order; however, records taken from the charity showed that no supplies actually went to Hamas. Because of a clear lack of evidence for their claims, the administration resorted to inventing a new definition of “material support for terrorism.” The claim became that the charities to which the Holy Land Foundation gave material goods were “controlled by Hamas” and that this was the same as “funding Hamas.” When the Israeli military launched operation Defensive Shield in 2002, the charities were raided and identified as “Hamas controlled.” Just having posters of Hamas leaders was enough evidence.

Prosecutors argued that because they were charging the foundation with “conspiracy,” they would not have to meet standard evidence requirements to prove their case. Submitted evidence normally has to meet specific standards that include relevance, materiality, competence and foundation. If the evidence does not meet these criteria, then it cannot be shown to the jury.  In a conspiracy case, however, it is the sum total evidence that is considered, not individual pieces. Almost all evidence is passed on to the jury, whether it is relevant or not.

Among the many underhanded tactics employed by the prosecution, one involved the use of an anonymous Israeli agent under the alias of “Avi.” This agent testified at length and was the key witness used to tie together all of the prosecution’s highly questionable evidence. Because Avi did not have to give his name, he did not have to worry about the possibility of facing perjury charges. Following the verdict, Bob Sanders, columnist and senior editor at the Fort Worth Star-Telegram stated that, “The Holy Land Five were railroaded by a locomotive bearing the symbol of the US Department of Justice.”

If the appeals made by the defense do not succeed, the case will essentially link Islam and mainstream Muslim charities to terrorism in an unprecedented way, furthering the fear of persecution many Muslims in the US already feel.

Back in the hometown of Holy Land Trust, the Muslim community is refusing to give in to fear and are speaking out and organizing. At town hall-style meetings at a Richardson mosque before and after the sentencing, families and leaders gathered to discuss how the community will continue to stand and mobilize against the injustice done in the Dallas courtroom. Describing the impact of the sentencing, Noor Elashi, journalist and daughter of defendant Ghassan Elashi said, “Today does not mark the end; rather it marks the beginning of the human and civil rights era for Muslims in America.”

<i>Candice Bernd is a journalism student at the University of North Texas, a freelance writer and an activist with the International Socialist Organization and Students for a Democratic Society.</i>