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‘If we lived in any other country we’d be honored for this work’ -prisoner Ghassan Elashi of Holy Land Foundation

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noor elashi 1
(Photo: Bud Korotzer/NLN)

Ghassan Elashi is one of approximately 80 prisoners in federal Communication Management Units. This article by his daughter Noor Elashi, “The Holy Land Five Appeal: My Father Will Not be Forgotten,” was originally published in CounterPunch yesterday:

Exactly three days following the tenth anniversary of the Bush administration shutting down the largest Muslim charity in the United States, the Fifth Circuit Court dismissed the appeal for the Holy Land Foundation case, affirming the conviction of my father, the co-founder of the HLF who’s serving a 65-year sentence for his humanitarian work.

On Wednesday, Dec. 7, the three-judge panel, based in New Orleans, filed their opinion, concluding that “the district court did not clearly err.”

Upon hearing this news, it initially all rushed back to me at once, nostalgia on overdrive. I saw the relentless accusations by pro-Israeli lobby groups, the pressure by pro-Israeli politicians and the defamatory news reports in the 1990’s. I saw the raid on the HLF in 2001, the pre-sunrise arrests and “material support” charges in 2004, the first trial and hung jury in 2007, the second trial and guilty verdicts in 2008, the sentencing in 2009. I saw the plethora of prison phone calls and visitations. And finally, I saw my father being transferred in 2010 to the Southern Illinois city of Marion’s Communications Management Unit—what The Nation has called “Gitmo in the Heartland”—and where my father’s significantly diminished phone calls and visitations are scheduled in advance and live-monitored from Washington D.C.

The case of the Holy Land Five comes down to this: American foreign policy has long been openly favorable towards Israel, and therefore, an American charity established primarily for easing the plight of the Palestinians became an ultimate target. As my father said during our 15-minute phone call on Thursday, “The politics of this country are not on our side. If we had been anywhere else, we would’ve been honored for our work.”

This month could have marked a milestone. The leaders of our country could have learned from our past. The day the towers fell could have been a time to stop fear from dominating reason instead of a basis to prosecute. The HLF would have continued to triumph, providing relief to Palestinians and other populations worldwide in the form of food, clothing, wheelchairs, ambulances, furniture for destroyed homes, back-to-school projects and orphan sponsorship programs. And more notably, my father would not have been incarcerated. My family and I would have been able to call him freely and embrace him without a plexiglass wall.
Yet my father was charged under the ambiguous Material Support Statute with sending humanitarian aid to Palestinian distribution centers known as zakat committees that prosecutors claimed were fronts for Hamas. He was prosecuted despite the fact that USAID—an American government agency—and many other NGO’s were providing charity to the very same zakat committees. Instead of the Fifth Circuit Court taking this fact into account and transcending the politics of our time, the language used in the opinion, drafted by Judge Carolyn King, echoed that of the prosecutors:

“The social wing is crucial to Hamas’s success because, through its operation of schools, hospitals, and sporting facilities, it helps Hamas win the ‘hearts and minds’ of Palestinians while promoting its anti-Israel agenda and indoctrinating the populace in its ideology.”

Even more disappointing is the Fifth Circuit Court’s opinion regarding one of the main issues in the appeal: The testimony of the prosecution’s expert witness, an Israeli intelligence officer who, for the first time in U.S. history, was permitted to testify under a pseudonym. The opinion states:

“When the national security and safety concerns are balanced against the defendants’ ability to conduct meaningful cross-examination, the scale tips in favor of maintaining the secrecy of the witnesses’ names.”

I refuse to let this language bring me down, especially knowing that the battle for justice continues. In the next few weeks, defense attorneys plan to ask the entire panel of appellate judges to re-hear the case, and if that petition is denied, they will take it to the Supreme Court.

Meanwhile, my father waits in prison. This Thursday, when I spoke to him, it had been the first time in several weeks since he received a phone call ban for writing his name on a yoga mat, which prison officials saw as “destruction of government property.” I told him that during the tenth anniversary of the HLF shutting down, the name of the charity is still alive and that he will not be forgotten. My father is my pillar, whose high spirits transcend all barbed-wire-topped fences, whose time in prison did not stifle his passion for human rights. In fact, when I asked him about the first thing he’ll do when he’s released, my father said, “I would walk all the way to Richardson, Texas carrying a sign that says, ‘End the Israeli Occupation of Palestine.’ “

Noor Elashi is a writer based in New York City. She holds a Creative Writing MFA from The New School.

Allison Deger

Allison Deger is the Assistant Editor of Follow her on twitter at @allissoncd.

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12 Responses

  1. Avi_G. on December 13, 2011, 7:16 pm

    Note: In the following, my intention is to point out that due to ideological bias and sheer hatred, there have been many instances in which the miscarriage of justice was tolerated simply because the accused was an Arab, whether at the hands of Zionist Jews in the US or Israel. In no way shape or form am I drawing a parallel between the actions with which Mr. Elashi is accused and those of Quntar’s.

    The sentence of 65 years in prison is indicative of the level of disdain and hostility the Lobby directed at Mr. Elashi. If they could get him executed, they would.

    It’s the same type of hatred that many exhibited when after thirty (30) years in an Israeli prison, Samir Quntar was released in a prisoner exchange with Hizbollah.

    In Israel, murderers usually receive a sentence of life in prison, which is usually 25 years with possibility of parole. Quntar spent 30 years in prison for allegedly killing an Israeli and his daughter.

    But the Israeli police psychologist Zvi Sela stated in an interview with Ha’Aretz that he believes that Quntar did not kill them.

    “We turned Kuntar into God-knows-what – the murderer of Danny Haran and his daughter, Einat. The man who smashed in the girl’s head. That’s nonsense. A story. A fairy tale. He told me he didn’t do it and I believe him. I investigated the event within the framework of the next book I am writing, about hostage-taking incidents. As far as I am concerned, it was no more than a newspaper report. I sat with him; he was very intelligent. He was a squad commander at 17. He told me that his motive for infiltrating Nahariya was to take hostages. He said [his organization] knew that would both humiliate Israel and get them media publicity.

  2. muzz al atesta on December 13, 2011, 7:44 pm

    I would walk all the way to Richardson, Texas carrying a sign that says, ‘End the Israeli Occupation of Palestine.’

    may that day come soon

    I told him that during the tenth anniversary of the HLF shutting down, the name of the charity is still alive and that he will not be forgotten.

    damn right

    • emanresu on December 14, 2011, 8:32 pm

      I am no sympathizer with Hamas politics or tactics. However, the Court’s treatment of the defendants’ Confrontation Clause argument seems shallow and problematic.

      First, any analysis has to begin with the fact that the Supreme Court has expressed strong disapproval of pseudonymous testimony. See Smith v. Illinois, 390 U.S. 129, 131 (1968) (“[W]hen the credibility of a witness is in issue, the very starting point in exposing falsehood and bringing out the truth through cross-examination must necessarily be to ask the witness who he is. . . .The witness’ name. . . open[s] countless avenues of in-court examination and out-of-court investigation. To forbid this most rudimentary inquiry at the threshold is effectively to emasculate the right of cross-examination itself.”) Indeed, the Supreme Court has treated the right of the accused to be brought face-to-face with his or her accuser as secondary to his or her right of cross-examination. See Maryland v. Craig, 497 U.S. 836, 860 (1990).

      Second, though witness safety is a recognized basis for permitting pseudonymous testimony, I think that it is fair to draw a distinction between an occurrence witness, who has no choice but to testify, and an expert witness, who does have a choice and who, moreover, usually receives compensation for his or her time and expertise.

      I do not doubt that Hamas encourages the targeting of witnesses against them, as the Court found. However, I feel that society has a right to impose special risks on military officers, soldiers, and police officers– and that that burden should be reflected in the balancing test between witness safety and the need for meaningful cross-examination.

      Third, it was troubling that, though Court invoked national security in upholding the use pseudonymous expert testimony, it did not indicate that disclosure of the experts’ identities would compromise the sources and methods of U.S. or, indeed, of Israeli, law enforcement. The Court merely noted that the names were classified.

      In my opinion, in the context of expert witnesses, a straight-up balancing test between the defendants’ interest in obtaining the names and the Government’s need to keep the names secret fails to embody the concerns expressed in Smith. The Government should bear the burden of showing the necessity of nondisclosure by at least clear-and-convincing evidence and, also, of showing why no non-pseudonymous expert can be substituted.

      I think there is a fair chance that the Supreme Court will grant certiorari in this case. The U.S. Supreme Court’s conservative majority is quite protective of the Confrontation Clause due to its taste for original intent analysis. (There were few statutory or judicially recognized restrictions to the right of confrontation in 1789).

  3. lobewyper on December 13, 2011, 8:27 pm

    From: The Philosoper’s Beard

    Monday, 5 December 2011Democracy is not a truth machine

    “In a democracy people are free to express and debate their opinions. This is valuable in itself. But it has also been held to be instrumentally important because it is claimed that through open free debate true ideas will conquer false ones by their merit. Democracy thus has an epistemic value as a kind of truth machine. In a democracy therefore there should be no dogma, no knowledge that cannot be questioned. Not only is this view mistaken, but it is so obviously wrong that it is astonishing that it has ever been taken seriously.

    The case for seeing freedom of expression as a public as well as a private good was made most eloquently and famously by J. S. Mill in On Liberty.

    [T]he peculiar evil of silencing the expression of an opinion is, that it is robbing the human race; posterity as well as the existing generation; those who dissent from the opinion, still more than those who hold it. If the opinion is right, they are deprived of the opportunity of exchanging error for truth: if wrong, they lose, what is almost as great a benefit, the clearer perception and livelier impression of truth, produced by its collision with error.
    Mill’s argument is a rhetorical tour de force in defence of pluralism and individual freedom. But it is only partly right. In particular Mill acknowledges no distinction between moral, religious & political opinions, and opinions about facts & science. He also fails to distinguish the processes of discovery and evaluation.

    Mill is quite right to defend people’s freedom to form, express, and debate their own opinions about religion, politics, and morality. These are subjects on which anyone can have an opinion; on which in a free society everyone has the right to have an opinion; and on which the very legitimacy of opinions requires their formation in a particular way (through non-coercive persuasion and debate). Liberalism is founded on a respect for individual autonomy on these issues, in the sense that every person is considered to develop their own ‘conception of the good’: a kind of personal moral idiolect governing our judgements about value (opinions) that is built up from our cumulative interpretations and re-interpretations of our own experiences.”

    AIPAC, the US and Israel governments, and their supporters, please take note of the above, especially the part about the importance of people’s freedom of expression!

  4. lobewyper on December 13, 2011, 9:37 pm

    “religion, politics, and morality. on which in a free society everyone has the right to have an opinion; and on which the very legitimacy of opinions requires their formation in a particular way (through non-coercive persuasion and debate.).”

    Note particularly the portion in parentheses and you will see how far we have fallen from this central democratic ideal. And when we insist upon this debate with respect to I-P, Israel and its US supporters actively suppress it! Why, because they would lose this debate conclusively and soon if based solely on its merits.

  5. rensanceman on December 13, 2011, 10:28 pm

    We admire your father’s dedication and courage to bear this outrage. It seems that of all the corrupting forces denigrating our society’s moral fiber is the corrosive effect of our death-grip with the “light unto all nations” (I.e. Israel). Just as in the McCarthy era when the fear of being a considered a Communist was fear inducing, as today to be critical of Israel is to fear being labeled an “anti Semite” with all of the negative repercussions that can bring. We know now that the McCarthy era was a stain in our country’s history. Likewise, we will eventually catch up to the rest of the world by finally discovering that the U.S. is being used very cynically by the Zionist to further its immoral actions (occupation, buying our Congress, dictating our foreign policy and encouraging the U.S. to wage wars for Israel’s benefit. ). I support your father with the hope that he is eventually freed.

  6. patm on December 13, 2011, 10:33 pm

    Thanks Allison for bringing this miscarriage of justice to our attention.

    I wish Ghassan Elashi and his daughter Noor all the very best in their legal battle to rectify this disgraceful U.S. court decision.

  7. Mndwss on December 14, 2011, 12:12 am

    The “land of the free” puts Muslims in prison (for 65 years) for giving aid to people in the Gaza prison.

    What? No death penalty?

    U.S.A. treat Muslims better then Nazi-Germany would treat a Jew giving aid to the Warsaw Ghetto.

    Go! USA. !!!!!!!!!

    You are still better then the other team….

  8. piotr on December 14, 2011, 3:06 am

    Actually, this is weird: “The testimony of the prosecution’s expert witness, an Israeli intelligence officer who, for the first time in U.S. history, was permitted to testify under a pseudonym.”

    Why an expert would need to testify under a pseudonym? Field operatives of intelligence agencies need anonymity. But experts who analyze the data? Or foreign representatives of an agency? There is also a tinsy problem that to further military and political goals of their governments intelligence agents are allowed to murder, lie, steal etc. So it creates a conundrum: we may decide as a democratic state that for the sake of survical (or enhanced security) we empower some organizations to commit crimes. But their mere presence undermines any presumption of truth: we allow them to lie, to forge, to mislead. For our own good.

    And now consider a person who is allowed by his government — not ours — to lie, to forge, to mislead, to steal and kill. Only for the benefit of the state and the citizens — but not our state and not our citizens. While such a person may even tell the truth, if the benefit of his government so requires, what kind of legal proof can he or she offer? Something that independent laboratories would confirm that could not be forged by laboratories of his organization?

    So conundrum is that we may enhance security, or enhance the truth, and it was our choice to go for security to the detriment of the truth. After all, the state is an organism, we need some vessels to carry blood and some to carry shit. But aren’t we allow shit in vessels that carry blood? This may cause a fatal infection.

  9. GalenSword on December 14, 2011, 9:16 am

    The HLF defense attorneys made a serious mistake by assuming that technical arguments based on the Constitutional would trump Zionist subversion of the US legal system. (It might work in Massachusetts with Tarek Mehanna but probably nowhere else)

    An effective approach would have focused on the corruption inherent in the definition of Specially Designated Terrorist Entity.

    Then the defense could have argued that witnesses like Zionist subversive Matthew Levitt or Evan Kohlmann in fact give material aid to Zionist terrorism, which can easily be shown to threaten US citizens in the USA and throughout the world.

    In fact Kohlmann and Levitt belong to a close-knit Zionist conspiracy that engages in the crimes of conspiracy against rights and of seditious conspiracy.

    In this way doubt could have been cast on the foundation of the case and on the loyalty of much of the Justice Department staff to the United States of America and to its Constitution.

    It is possible that the Mehanna case may mark a turning point but it would not be enough, for the primary goal of progressive anti-Zionists should not merely be freeing patriots like Elashi but to put the entire un-American Zionist conspiracy including Levitt, Kohlmann, Pipes, Saban, Adelson, Foxman and many others in jail.

  10. GalenSword on December 14, 2011, 9:33 am

    The HLF defense made a serious mistake by assuming technical constitutional arguments would trump Zionist subversion of the US legal system.

    An effective approach would focus on the corruption inherent in the definition of Specially Designated Terrorist Entity.

    Then the defense could argue witnesses like Zionist subversive Matthew Levitt or Evan Kohlmann in fact give material aid to Zionist terrorism, which is easily shown to threaten US citizens domestically & throughout the world.

    In fact Kohlmann & Levitt belong to a close-knit Zionist conspiracy engaging in crimes of conspiracy against rights & of seditious conspiracy.

    Doubt could thus be cast on the foundation of the case & on the loyalty of much of the Justice Department staff to the United States of America & to its Constitution.

    Anti-Zionists must aim at putting the entire criminal un-American Zionist conspiracy in jail. Only by breaking the backbone of Zionist subversion can men like Elashi be freed.

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