As the Holy Land Five return to court, US policy goes on trial

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My friend Noor Elashi, the daughter of imprisoned Holy Land Foundation for Human Relief and Development (HLF) chairman Ghassan Elashi (also my friend), just arrived in New Orleans. She’s there to watch the long-awaited appeals of her father and the rest of the Holy Land Five, Palestinian-American men convicted of providing charity to Palestinians. Federal prosecutors specifically alleged that the HLF funded Palestinian zakat committees – local Muslim charitable organizations – somehow connected with Hamas, a US-designated foreign terrorist organization and now the elected governing party of the 1967-occupied Palestinian territories. But the same federal government funded many of those same committees through the US Agency for International Development (USAID), even after the HLF indictments were issued. Whether foreign relations or criminal law, US policy concerning the occupation of Palestine has a way of making everything surreal, transforming the most straightforward questions – who is a legal recipient of private charity? – into Kafkaesque riddles. 

Noor’s determination to achieve justice for her father, the rest of the Holy Land Five and their families, and Palestine shines through in two articles published over the past day. Her essay in CounterPunch outlines the legal rationale behind her father’s conviction: 

In 2001, President Bush signs the Patriot Act, which strengthens the Material Support Statue. The law’s language is so vague that it gives prosecutors the authority to argue that humanitarian aid to designated terrorist organizations could be indirect, and therefore, a crime. 

In my father’s case, he is charged with conspiring to give Material Support in the form of humanitarian aid to Palestinian distribution centers called zakat committees. Prosecutors admit the zakat committees on the indictment were not designated terrorist groups, but according to the indictment released in 2004, these zakat committees are “controlled by” or act “on behalf of” Hamas, which was designated in 1995. Their theory is that by providing charity to zakat committees, the HLF helped Hamas win the “hearts and minds” of the Palestinian people. 

The HLF case was tried in 2007, lasting three months, and after 19 days of deliberations, the jury deadlocked on most counts. The judge declared a mistrial and the case was tried the following year. 

In 2008, after essentially the same arguments, the retrial ended with the jury returning all guilty verdicts, and in 2009, my father was sentenced to 65 years in prison, for essentially giving humanitarian aid to Palestinians. 

She also describes the irregularities necessary for the government to finally win its case: 

According to the appellate brief, there’s a major fact that undermines the prosecution’s claim that Hamas controlled the zakat committees: “The United States Agency for International Development—which had strict instructions not to deal with Hamas—provided funds over many years to zakat committees named in the indictment, including the Jenin, Nablus, and Qalqilia committees,” writes my father’s attorney, John Cline. He continues stating that in 2004, upon the release of the HLF indictment, “USAID provided $47,000 to the Qalqilia zakat committee.” 

Furthermore, defense attorneys will argue that the district court: 

  1. Violated the right to due process by allowing a key witness to testify without providing his real name, thereby abusing my father’s right to confront his witness. They are referring to an Israeli intelligence officer who became the first person in U.S. history permitted to testify as an expert witness using a pseudonym.
  1. Abused its discretion by allowing “inflammatory evidence of little or no probative value,”  which included multiple scenes of suicide bombings.
  1. Deviated from the sentencing guidelines when they sentenced my father to 65 years.

Nora Barrows-Friedman’s  post on The Electronic Intifada cites a Muslim Legal Fund of America (MLFA) press release, which notes “[t]he fact that the court denied the defense access to evidence the prosecution had access to. Instead, prosecutors were allowed to cherry-pick what evidence the defense could review.” 

Analyzing “a massive covert programme to monitor the Muslim communities” in New York’s metropolitan region, Mark LeVine recently wrote in Al Jazeera English: “Perhaps the most troubling aspect of the intelligence unit’s activities is who and what it is modeling itself after: the activities of the Israeli occupation forces in the West Bank.” As American standards of both policing and jurisprudence descend to those of the IDF and its military courts, increasing numbers of Americans may find themselves wondering what their government’s unflinching support for Zionism has wrought. 

Nora’s post also includes a good interview with Noor, in which she both offers further analysis of the case and describes its practical effects on her family: 

We saw him behind a plexiglass wall, which is part of the cruel nature of this CMU system. My five siblings and I, our mother and our grandmother, had to cram ourselves in this 5-foot by 7-foot visitation room, which meant that we had to sit on each others’ laps. We had four hours on the first day and four hours on the second day, and that’s all we had for the entire month. It was a 12-hour drive back and forth each way.   There were so many things that we wanted to talk about as a family; things that you could typically iron out in months or years, but we only had those few hours where we could speak face to face. And during those moments, that physical contact is so important — to be able to wrap my arms around my father was so important during this last visit, but of course I was not allowed to do so. 

He’s been telling me that during Ramadan, he feels that he’s amongst the community — most of the inmates with him are fasting. They get up in the morning before sunrise to eat together, and eat together again at night. They’re rarely allowed to congregate, but they’ve been allowed to pray together a few times a day. But it still doesn’t change the fact that we only get to hear from him just once every couple of weeks, and he’s still sentenced to 65 years in prison. 

The CounterPunch and The Electronic Intifada articles are both worth reading in full. If you have money to give, the Muslim Legal Fund of America, which is backing the Holy Land Five’s defense teams, can put it to good use. And if you have time, Ghassan would love to hear from you. 

Joe Catron is a resident of Brooklyn, New York and a current member of the International Solidarity Movement – Gaza Strip. He writes in a personal capacity.

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