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Another Fed terror frame-up collapses

November 2, 2007 | Page 16

NICOLE COLSON reports on the outcome of the trial of five men from the Holy Land charity.

WHAT WAS supposed to be a "slam-dunk" terrorism prosecution for the federal government fell apart in spectacular fashion last week when a jury refused to find the five defendants guilty on a single count out of nearly 200 charges against them.

The five men, backers of the Holy Land Foundation for Relief and Development, were accused by the Bush administration of "materially aiding" what the government labels a "foreign terrorist organization"--the radical Palestinian group Hamas.

The trial lasted more than two months, and included more than 1,000 evidence exhibits. Altogether, the men faced a total of 197 counts. Yet after 19 days of deliberations, the jury didn't vote to convict on a single charge against any of the five.

One defendant was acquitted of all but one charge, on which the jury deadlocked. A majority of jurors also appeared ready to acquit two other defendants of most other charges. The jury couldn't reach a verdict on the charges against the two principal organizers and the foundation itself. The judge overseeing the case was forced to declare a mistrial.

The Holy Land Foundation is one of the highest profile groups the federal government has targeted for a terrorism prosecution since September 11. Holy Land had been the largest Muslim charity in the U.S. until the government froze its assets in late 2001, using the September 11 attacks as an excuse to crackdown on Muslim charities in general, and Palestinian charities in particular.

Holy Land primarily raised funds for Palestinian refugees in Jordan, Lebanon and the Occupied Territories. The Bush administration claims Holy Land sent more than $12 million to offices and charitable committees in the West Bank and Gaza.

This, according to the government, was "terrorism," since some offices and committees were allegedly run by Hamas--which has been designated a terrorist organization by the State Department--or Hamas supporters.

Though even the government admits that large portions of the money went to things like building hospitals and feeding the poor, prosecutors claim some was used to recruit Hamas supporters.

But the evidence was sketchy at best. Much of it reportedly dated back to the Clinton administration, but federal prosecutors declined to take action then. One tape-recorded meeting from 1993 was used as evidence, even though it occurred two years before the U.S. government had even designated Hamas a terrorist group. Israeli agents were also allowed to testify under pseudonyms.

In addition, much of the government's case against Holy Land was based on FBI "summaries" of thousands of hours of classified wiretapped conversations--for example, one from 1996 involving charity officials. In late February, however, lawyers for the foundation showed that much of the "official summary" of that conversation appeared to have been fabricated.

In one summary, the government claimed that Holy Land officials repeatedly made anti-Semitic comments--but the 13-page verbatim transcript reveal no such remarks. Other transcripts contained similar inflammatory "errors."

"I understand there's no magical mystery check with 'Hamas' written on it, but overall, the case was pretty weak," juror William Neal told the New York Times. "There really was nothing there for me--no concrete evidence."

According to Neal, the government's evidence "was pieced together over the course of a decade--a phone call this year, a message another year." Instead of trying to prove that the defendants knew they were supporting terrorists, Neal said, prosecutors "danced around the wire transfers by showing us videos of little kids in bomb belts and people singing about Hamas--things that didn't directly relate to the case."

This isn't the first "terrorism" case to fall apart for the government. Several of the highest profile trials, particularly those involving charges of "material support" have ended in acquittals or hung juries. According to the Center on Law and Security at the New York University School of Law, the government has a 29 percent conviction rate in terrorism prosecutions overall, compared with 92 percent for felonies generally.

In other cases, defendants were allowed to plead guilty to far lesser charges. Former University of South Florida professor Sami Al-Arian, for example, has been behind bars since 2003 on similar charges.

In 2005, Al-Arian agreed to plead guilty to a single charge of the most minor count against him in order to end his ordeal after a jury acquitted or deadlocked on every charge against him, but the government vowed to retry him anyway.

The Feds later reneged on the deal, saying that Al-Arian should be compelled to testify in another "terrorism-related" case in Virginia, even though his plea agreement specifically exempted him from this. He remains in prison to this day.

Prosecutors are now vowing to retry the case against the Holy Land Foundation defendants, but as Matthew Orwig, the former U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of Texas, told the Times, the mistrial decision is "a stunning setback for the government, there's no other way of looking at it...This is a message, a two-by-four in the middle of the forehead. If this doesn't get their attention, they are just in complete denial."

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