US charity arrests raise questions regarding ‘war on terror’

In a case with profound implications regarding the nature and focus of the US “war on terror,” on July 27 US authorities arrested the leadership of one of the largest Muslim charities in the United States, the Holy Land Foundation for Relief and Development.

Three additional indictments handed down on Aug. 20 were said by US authorities to also be part of efforts to stop the flow of money from the United States to the Palestinian militant group Hamas. A Hamas senior official who was indicted on Aug. 20, Moussa Abu Marzook, told the Associated Press in Syria: “Hamas did not take a penny from the Holy Land Foundation. Hamas has its own means of funding and that is not connected to any institution in the West.”

The 42-count indictment accuses the senior officers and fundraisers of Holy Land of using the charity to “provide financial and material support” in excess of $12.4 million to “Hamas-controlled organizations in the West Bank and Gaza, as well as for direct payment to individuals whom (Holy Land) supported on behalf of Hamas, including family members of martyrs and prisoners.” The case appears to rely heavily on information provided by Israeli intelligence,

with federal authorities citing “critical assistance from our foreign allies and partners.”

Among the accused arrested on July 27 were Holy Land’s founder, Shukri Abu Baker, its executive director Ghassan Elashi, Mohammed al-Mezain, Mufid Abdel-Qader and Abdel-Raham Odeh. Also indicted were Haitham Maghawri and Akram Mishal, both said to be outside the United States. A former fundraiser, Abdel-Jabbar Hamdan, was also detained, and is presumed to be a material witness in the case.

Indicted along with Abu Marzook in the second case, and arrested on Aug. 20, were Mohammed Salah, whose Chicago-based Koranic Literacy Institute was the subject of a controversial civil asset forfeiture in the late 1990s, and Abdel-Haleem Ashqar, who has previously been held on contempt of court charges for refusing to testify in other cases. Neither man has been connected to the charity.

John Boyd, a lawyer for Holy Land, told The New York Times: “This is completely unfounded, and if the Holy Land Foundation is given an opportunity to defend itself, it will be able to rebut every charge made in this indictment.”

The American Muslim community was shocked when the federal government in December 2001, froze the assets of Holy Land, along with two lesser known charities. With outstanding assets estimated to be in excess of $7 million, and having been listed as a suggested charity on the State Department’s website, Holy Land was among with most respected American Muslim institutions.

But for years it had been the subject of accusations, mainly from journalist Steven Emerson and his one-time associate, the self-described “terrorist hunter” Rita Katz, that it was a “front” or fundraising arm of Hamas-related social service organizations. These charges were not taken seriously by many people, because of the long history of false accusations from Emerson and his associates against Arab and Muslim Americans.

Holy Land challenged the seizure of its assets, filing a suit in federal court against the government in March 2002. In response, the government declared its intention to re-designate Holy Land as a “terrorist organization” itself, rather than merely treating it as a supporter or fundraiser. Lawyers for the charity say they were given two weeks to challenge the accusations in a voluminous memo from the Justice Department. They say they declined to try to meet what they call an impossible deadline. In May 2002, the government officially re-classified the group a “specially designated terrorist.”

Holy Land’s lawsuit proved a complete failure, as neither the federal district court judge nor the appellate court would allow the charity to introduce evidence challenging the government’s claims. Though these rulings created a minor uproar among legal scholars, the Supreme Court refused to hear Holy Land’s appeal and the rulings stood.

Civil liberties groups insisted that since Holy Land had never been allowed to defend itself, the government should either bring criminal indictments against its leaders, or unfreeze the assets. On July 27, the indictments came.

The accusations against Holy Land and the other charities have created a conundrum for American Muslims regarding how to perform their religious obligation of zakat – charitable giving – when some of the best known charities, implicitly endorsed by the State Department and enjoying federally-approved tax-free status, are now accused of being criminals.

Arab-American and Muslim groups have repeatedly suggested that the government provide some mechanism to assure Muslim donors that the groups to which they contribute are not suspected of any crimes, but to no avail. Additionally, the effort, spearheaded by Salam al-Marayati, executive director of the Muslim Public Affairs Council, to get the remaining Holy Land funds, estimated to be about $5 million, released to a mutually acceptable third party charity has met with little success.

Central to the Holy Land case are key civil liberties and foreign policy issues defining development of the US war on terror.

Free speech and freedom of conscience in the United States could be compromised if giving money to humanitarian operations overseas run by people with the wrong opinions becomes a serious crime. Few Americans are aware of the vast social-service network run by Hamas in the Gaza Strip, and – like the Israeli government but unlike many others – US authorities seem to recognize no difference between the humanitarian, political and para-military branches of the movement.

The indictments against Holy Land suggest the money in question was allegedly passed to “charitable fronts” for Hamas, and in part provided as aid for the families of its activists who were jailed or killed. “In this manner, defendants effectively rewarded past, and encouraged future, suicide bombings and terrorist activities on behalf of Hamas,” the government says.

If the case proves to be based solely on support for humanitarian groups run by people with the wrong opinions or the wrong associations, or aid to people who have the wrong relatives, then otherwise lawful activity will be a crime more because of the opinions being implicitly expressed than any violent acts. Since “material support” laws were enacted, civil liberties scholars have warned that they could develop into a form of “thought crime” in the US.

In July, the US government was rebuffed by a jury in Idaho that acquitted a Saudi student of “supporting terrorism” by setting up websites that allegedly praised terrorism in Chechnya and Israel. He was charged under a provision of the US Patriot Act makes that makes it illegal to provide “expert advice or assistance” to terrorists.

The recent arrests suggest that just as US foreign policy has become difficult to distinguish from Israeli attitudes, US law enforcement increasingly sees little difference between nationalist groups fighting Israeli occupation and Al-Qaeda’s worldwide terrorist network.

Opponents of Israel are thus increasingly treated as opponents of the US by American law enforcement, while the same standard is not applied to other nationalist groups such as Irish, Basque, Tamil, Iranian, Colombian that engage in terrorism.