In May 2009, five Palestinian-American men – U.S. citizens and devout Muslims – received prison sentences ranging from 15 to 65 years. They were known by then as the “Holy Land Five” and were convicted in November 2008 of giving humanitarian aid to Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza through their work with the Holy Land Foundation (HLF) charity – aid, according to the prosecution’s case, that indirectly benefited Hamas, designated by the U.S. in 1995 as a “Foreign Terrorist Organization”.
The 2008 trial and convictions followed the first criminal trial in 2007 where there wasn’t a single “guilty” verdict against any of the five men. The first trial should have ended the case, but the unexpected and questionable result was a mistrial. This allowed prosecutors to come back with the second trial and a different judge. Both trials took place in Dallas, Texas. After the first trial, reporter Bob Ray Sanders wrote:
This case was flawed from the beginning, but it didn’t keep the government from going forward, because it needed some trophies in its war on terrorism. Instead of winning trophies, however, it destroyed a worthwhile organization and ruined many lives.
Author and activist Miko Peled has written a detailed account of the trials, including the outrageous “evidence” and tactics used in both trials by the prosecution, with the support of the judges, against the five men. His book, Injustice: The Story of the Holy Land Foundation Five, published earlier this year, is both illuminating and heartbreaking. His research included visits and correspondence with all five men, which involved navigating through the rules and regulations of the U.S. prison system. Peled also talked with family members, defense attorneys, and many others. He read through more than 20,000 pages of court documents and traveled widely in the U.S. as well as Palestine/Israel for background and context.
After reading Peled’s book, it is hard to imagine that any open-minded reader could fail to be moved by the deep religious faith and practice of these five men – Shukri Abu-Baker, Ghassan Elashi, Mufid Abdulqader, Abdulrahman Odeh, and Mohammad Elmezain – and it is made clear that their faith has deepened while in prison. In spite of personal and family hardships and loss, their lives have not been consumed by anger, bitterness, or self-pity. Their steadfastness – sumoud in Arabic – is truly remarkable.
In December 2001, less than three months after the attack on the World Trade Center, President Bush ordered that the Holy Land Foundation be shut down, designating it a “Domestic Terror Organization”. This followed years of pressure from pro-Israel groups and wiretapping by the FBI. At the same time President Bush closed the Holy Land Foundation, by then the largest Muslim charity in the U.S. and a threat to Israel’s negative portrayal of Palestinians, he was hosting a visit from then-prime minister of Israel Ariel Sharon. A Washington Post article at the time of Sharon’s visit gives a glaring example of Israel’s influence:
Administration officials said that during an Oval Office meeting on Sunday, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon asked Bush to move against the Holy Land Foundation, and the president speedily obliged. “We — bam — did it,” a senior official said.
The persecution and prosecution of the Holy Land Five has been described over the years as a witch hunt, a war on charity, and the collapse of American justice. In a January 2015 article in the London Review of Books, U.K. barrister Francis FitzGibbon wrote the following about the HLF “show trial”:
The 9/11 attacks precipitated much hasty and panicked action by the US authorities: hence the Patriot Act and the other instruments of at best dubious legality that the Bush administration used to advance the war on terror. But as a tale of legal chicanery by a government, of moral panic and of complicity on the part of the judiciary, what happened to the HLF is hard to beat.
In a September 2016 article, when he was still doing research for his book Injustice, Miko Peled related one of the most outrageous aspects of the government’s case against the five innocent men:
In a move unprecedented in the history of the United States, the judges in both these trials had allowed key evidence for the government to be provided by two anonymous Israeli witnesses: an Israeli Security Agency employee known to jurors and the defense lawyers only as “Avi” and an Israeli Defense Forces intelligence officer known only as “Major Lior.”
When the 2008 convictions were appealed, the appeals court recognized that allowing the new pieces of evidence was an error. However, in a move that HLF lawyer John Cline called, “The most ridiculous, dishonest, indefensible call by a federal court I ever saw in my life,” the appeals court declared these errors “harmless” and denied the appeal– even though these errors were not harmless but had brought about the guilty verdicts and the harsh sentencing.
Not one of the five humanitarians should have spent a single day in prison. Their good names must be cleared, and they must be released from prison. It cannot happen too soon.