Holy Land 5 case reveals double standard in enforcement of US law

An US federal agent at the Holy Land Foundation in Bridgeview, Illinois, as the contents of the office are seized on 4 December 2001. (AFP PHOTO/Scott Olson)

“I had no intention in my mind and my heart but to help the Palestinian indigenous people who are and have been facing unusual economic distress … nothing in my life was as satisfactory and as self-fulfilling as knowing that I could sign a check. It is the only evidence you have against me, signing the check.”

At a special session on Palestinian political prisoners at the US Social Forum in Detroit last month, Noor Elashi recited that statement given by her father, Ghassan, when he was sentenced by a federal court in May 2009. Ghassan Elashi is the co-founder of the Holy Land Foundation (HLF), which was the largest Muslim charity in the US before it was shut down by the Bush Administration in 2001.

Sending aid not just to Palestinians living under the thumb of Israel’s military occupation, but to people in Bosnia, Albania, Chechnya and Turkey, the HLF was also involved in local and national humanitarian relief. The organization set up food banks on the East Coast, helped victims of the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing and provided assistance to people after floods and tornadoes devastated parts of Iowa and Texas in the 1990s.

Three months after the 11 September 2001 attacks, the US Treasury department froze the HLF’s bank accounts as the Executive branch shut down the organization under the auspices of the PATRIOT Act. Using a new provision called the Material Support Law, the US State Department accused the five HLF founders — now dubbed the Holy Land Five — of providing “assistance” to designated “terrorist groups” (namely Hamas) in Palestine. The Bush Administration immediately closed the organization and launched aggressive charges against the charity workers. There was no hearing, and the prosecution was authorized to use secret evidence.

Several other American faith-based relief organizations were also caught in the post-11 September hysteria of charity closures under the same new laws and executive orders. The legislation has been challenged by civil rights groups in the US Supreme Court as unconstitutional, but was upheld and used to sentence Ghassan Elashi, a father of six who immigrated to the US in 1978, to 65 years in prison.

On 21 June 2010, the Supreme Court ruled to continue to authorize prosecutions of charities under the Material Support provision, disappointing families and supporters of the Holy Land Five and troubling US-based organizations that directly support grassroots humanitarian programs in the Middle East.

Noor Elashi, a 24-year-old master of fine arts candidate at the New School in New York City, told The Electronic Intifada that her father’s legal team is in the middle of appealing the entire HLF case. “The attorneys are working with the American Civil Liberties Union and the Center for Constitutional Rights,” she said. “The overall impression is that the upholding of the Material Support Law is not the best thing that could happen regarding this case. It’s not the most positive step. But that said, there are so many other grounds for appeal, such as evidentiary issues and the prosecution’s use of an anonymous witness.”

Prosecutors working for the Bush Administration accused the HLF of supporting Hamas by trying to “win hearts and minds” of the Palestinian population through humanitarian assistance, and that the charities HLF worked with were “front groups” for the political party. But after several years of wiretapping phone lines, seizing documents and following money trails, the prosecution couldn’t support its allegations of an HLF-Hamas connection. Elashi said they then resorted to calling on an anonymous Israeli intelligence officer, who called himself “Avi,” as a key witness who told the jury he was an expert who could “smell Hamas.”

“It was the only time in the history of the United States that a witness inside a courtroom was allowed to remain anonymous, so the defense couldn’t cross-examine him,” Elashi said. “That in and of itself is huge grounds for appeal.”

In fact, Israeli intelligence officers, in an unprecendented move, were allowed to testify in secret using pseudonyms and disguises and without the defense being given a full opportunity to cross-examine them during the 2006 federal trial in Chicago of American citizen Muhammad Salah and stateless Palestinian Abdelhaleem Ashqar. Accused of “racketeering” charges related to fundraising for Hamas, both men were acquitted of all the terrorism-related charges, but each was found guilty on single counts of obstruction of justice; Salah for lying on a form in a civil case and Ashqar for refusing to testify before a grand jury.

Additionally, the US government infamously led a lengthy, repressive, and racist assault against the Palestinian-American professor and political activist Dr. Sami al-Arian. Al-Arian, who remains under house arrest following a six-year prison sentence — which included spending 43 months locked in solitary confinement — was also charged, as the HLF were, under the Material Support Law.

Elashi stressed that the HLF was never convicted of giving charity to designated “terrorist” groups, but in the end they were convicted of conspiring to give charity to zakat or charitable committees in Palestine.

“I feel like at this point, anybody is at risk,” Elashi said. “This is the time to be worried. What essentially can happen is that any American can be prosecuted for giving any type of charity, or any type of aid. Even a former president is at risk of being prosecuted,” she said, referring to how Jimmy Carter has helped train election workers in Lebanon.

“The problem with the law is that it’s way too vague,” Elashi added, “and because it’s way too vague, it really singles out groups from the rest of the population, and typically singles out Muslim charities as well as Arab-American individuals. And it’s all being done in the name of national security, but what it’s really doing is shredding the constitution and causing an economic chokehold on occupied Palestine.”

Elashi told The Electronic Intifada that despite the circumstances, her father is extremely hopeful about the appeals process. “Opening the charity was a form of optimism,” she said. “He knew from the first day that when he started the charity it was going to be a challenge. Soon after, he got attacked from pro-Israeli politicians and lobbyists, who tried to link the charity to Hamas and acts of violence. He continued to do everything possible to make sure that the charity kept running, and did pretty much what every other American aid organization did — USAID, the Red Cross, and the UN all gave money to the very same zakat committees that were listed in the HLF indictment.”

The Elashi family has not been allowed to visit Ghassan in prison, Noor Elashi said, for quite some time. In the fall of 2009, after one of the visits, a prison guard told the inmates and the families to disperse. But Noor’s younger brother Omar — who lives with Down’s Syndrome — ran to hug his father, and at that point the prison guard yelled at Ghassan, saying that he disobeyed orders. The guard filed a complaint that led to an internal investigation, and the prison ruled that there would be a six-month to one-year visitation ban.

Even after Ghassan was moved to another prison, the visitation ban moved with him. “We get two phone calls from him every month, which is significantly less than we would get from any other prison,” Elashi said. “We hope to finally see him in September or October.” Ghassan is currently being held inside a Communications Management Unit (CMU) in Illinois, a block within some prisons that are nicknamed “little Guantanamos” due to the overwhelming population of Muslims and people of Arab and Middle Eastern descent.

Defense Attorney Nancy Hollander, on behalf of the Holy Land Five, told The Electronic Intifada that the legal team is optimistic about the appeal. “We are currently working on our brief to the Fifth Circuit,” Hollander remarked. “The current deadline is 3 August, but that might get extended into September. All of our clients have been moved to other prisons. We are in contact with them regularly. We remain hopeful.”

Meanwhile, private, US-based, pro-Israel groups are currently sending millions of dollars every year to support illegal settlement colonies and right-wing Zionist settlers in the occupied West Bank. The New York Times reported on 5 July that at least 40 US-based organizations are actively donating more than $200 million in tax-deductible “gifts” to build and sustain illegal settlements. According to the Times, some of the donations also pay for “legally questionable” items such as bulletproof vests, guard dogs, weapon accessories and armored security vehicles (“Tax-Exempt Funds Aid Settlements in West Bank”).

Daniel C. Kurtzer, the former US ambassador to Israel, told the Times “a couple of hundred million dollars makes a huge difference” in terms of supporting the settlement industry, and if carefully focused, “helps to create a new reality on the ground.”

As of now, there is no indication that any of these faith-based, pro-settlement groups will face the kind of treatment and lengthy, expensive trials under the guise of the Material Support Law like those the Holy Land Five have faced. Noor Elashi told The Electronic Intifada that there is an obvious double standard being applied and enforced against her father and his colleagues.

However, she said that her father “feels his ordeal like he feels a fly on his shoe … He believes that it’s going to pass, and he’s still very proud of everything he’s accomplished. His work has been the most rewarding part of his life. He’s helped people rebuild homes and has given hungry people food. That’s what nourishes him. So he’s optimistic about the appeal.”

At the US Social Forum in Detroit, Elashi read the last part of her father’s statement upon his sentencing. “We helped Palestinian orphans and needy families, giving them hope and life,” he stated. “We gave them hope and life … And what was the occupation giving them? It was providing them with death and destruction. And then we are turned criminals. That is irony.”

Related Links