Appeals judge upholds sentencing for Holy Land Foundation Five

Israel/PalestineUS Politics
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HLF co-founder Ghassan Elashi:

“We at the Holy Land Foundation were giving hope and providing the basic essentials of life to the Palestinians, basic essentials—oil, rice, flour. And what was the occupation giving them? The occupation was providing them with death and destruction. And then we are turned criminals. That is irony.”

On Wednesday, December 7, a federal court of appeals upheld the conviction of the Holy Land Foundation (HLF) co-founders and staff, affirming sentences that range from 15 to 65 years, convicted under the Providing Material Support to Terrorists Act. Co-founders Ghassan Elashi and Mohammad El-Mezain, along with the CEO and president Shukri Abu-Baker, volunteer fundraiser Mufid Abdulgader, and HLF New Jersey representative Abdulrahman Odeh were convicted in 2009, after a 2007 mistrial, for providing charity in Gaza.

The prosecution filled the case through an extension of the Material Support to Terrorist Act, which criminalized “assistance” to organizations on the US Treasury’s terrorist list vis-à-vis the Patriot Act. HLF was charged with assisting Hamas–by providing aid to orphanages and hospitals in Gaza–although the Palestinian charities, called zakats, were not on the US Treasury list.

Criminalized charity

The defendants were not convicted for providing material support to Hamas, but for providing humanitarian aid to organizations that also received support from USAID, the United Nations, the Red Cross, CARE, the European Commission–and USAID continued to provide support to some of the same zakat charities after the HLF was shut down by the Bush Administration in 2001.

Writer Noor Elashi, daughter of HLF co-founder Ghassan Elashi comments, “these Palestinian-American humanitarians were convicted of giving material support in the form of humanitarian aid to Palestinian charities called zakat committees that prosecutors alleged were fronts for Hamas, which the U.S. designated a terrorist organization in 1995.”

Defense attorney Nancy Hollander said:

“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 any- one 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 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.”

Twelve years of harassment

HLF was targeted (like Sami al-Arian) prior to the Bush Administration post-9/11 measures. Investigations against HLF began in 1993, when the Clinton Administration froze HLF assets, hindering donations to schools. HLF funds were frozen in a wave of closures to 150 US tax-exempt organization’s bank accounts–targeting mostly Muslim organizations–in a move that brought praise from Yasser Arafat. The 1993 freezing of assets also targeted suspected U.S. supporters of Hamas and Islamic Jihad–with intelligence provided by the Israeli government–who at the time, were rival political parties to the changing landscape of a post-Oslo PLO. These organizations were viewed by the US as “weakening” the so-called “peace-process” (in 1992 Hamas officials held approximately 30% of the elected positions in professional unions in both West Bank and Gaza).

The Forwards Ira Stoll reported in 1996, and throughout the 1990s, public statements were made by Islamophobic figures such as Steven Emerson, and also Rep. Nita Lowey (Dem-NY). Stoll noted Emerson and Lowey asked the U.S. government to revoke the tax-exempt status of the HLF–citing without evidence–that it was “the main fund raising arm for Hamas in the United States.”

Unconstitutional practices by the prosecution

The re-trial of the HLF Five began in 2008, after previously reaching a mistrial in 2007. During the first three-month trial–based on a twelve-year investigation–the prosecution exposed jurors to images from the al-Aqsa Intifada. Juror William Neal said of the first trial, the prosecution “kept showing us blown-up buses and they kept showing us little kids in bomb belts reenacting Hamas leaders. It had nothing to do with the actual charges. It had nothing to do with the defendants.”

In the second trial, “secret evidence” from one of the Israeli informants, known as “Avi,” was used. Avi also stated to the jury that he could “smell Hamas.”

Sentenced to “little Guantanamo”

Elashi and other defendants are currently being held in Communication Management Units (CMUs), or “little Guantanamo,” which are prisons with approximately two-thirds of the population being Arab and/or Muslim, and the remainder being left-political activist.  Most notably, animal rights activist Andy Stepanian, was held for five-and-a-half months before becoming the first prisoner released from a CMU, who has since become an outspoken critic against the detention centers. The ACLU is challenging the legality of the CMUs, as they “didn’t meet the regular approval process, which has to go through the Administrative Procedures Act and go through the oversight of Congress,” according to Stepanian.

The defense hoped to overturn the harsh sentences, for providing humanitarian aid to charities in Gaza, by in-part, appealing the testimony of two-Israeli informants. Hollander, though uncertain of what will proceed, indicates there are a few options, including asking for a rehearing from the “three judge panel that heard the case,” or asking for a rehearing of the entire court, and then petitioning the Supreme Court for a writ of certiorari, with the additional possibility of filing a writ of habeas corpus.

Elashi, Despite loosing the appeal, is hopeful. Stating in an  interview earlier this year with Electronic Intifada:

“I feel like things are going to get much worse before they get better, and it’s an uphill battle. A lot of people within the families of the Holy Land Five believe that the appeal is going to be the end of it, while I — not as a cynical person but someone who knows about the history of this country, and our very heinous past — probably acknowledge that it’s going to be a little bit of time before these men are exonerated and freed, and vindicated through the court system or through a presidential pardon.”

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