Five testimonies in one day (Oct. 16, 2008)

Solidarity was clearly alive with nearly 100 supporters packing the courtroom on Thursday, Oct. 16, 2008 as defense attorneys continued cross-examining FBI agent Robert Miranda. The jury heard five testimonies throughout the long day, which ended at 7 p.m.

Joshua Dratel—who represents Mohammad El-Mezain—was the fourth defense attorney to cross-examine Miranda. All the calls between the defendants and Hamas officials were made before the designation of Hamas, he said. And after getting a voicemail by Hamas leader Khalid Mihsal in 1994 asking El-Mezain to attend a meeting in Turkey, El-Mezain did not attend the meeting, Dratel added.

Miranda and Dratel read aloud parts of a wiretapped phone call transcript between El-Mezain and his brother and another between El-Mezain and his father. They talked about Dar Salam Hospital in Gaza to which HLF gave money. They said an imprisoned Palestinian allegedly threatened to expose something about the hospital if the hospital did not hire his son. In the conversation, El-Mezain makes it clear that the hospital staff do not appear to be religious (and thus, are not affiliated with Hamas.) El-Mezain also kept emphasizing that the hospital was a legitimate American charity whose only purpose was to ease the plight of the Palestinians and impoverished people worldwide.

He indicated that it wasn’t unusual that HLF kept some of its files in Infocom. The web-hosting company was owned by one of the defendants in the HLF case, Ghassan Elashi. And HLF officials had a written contract with Infocom for use of that space, Dratel said. He concluded by saying that neither the international Muslim Brotherhood nor the Islamic Action Front based in Jordan are designated as terrorist entities in the U.S.

Prosecutor Jim Jacks then briefly asked Miranda questions during redirect examination. Islamic Action Front is an ally of Hamas, Miranda said. And Hamas is the Palestinian wing of the Muslim Brotherhood, he proclaimed. In addition, he said the FBI was surprised to find documents at Infocom.

During her re-cross examinations of Miranda, Nancy Hollander—who represents defendant Shukri Abu-Baker—made a couple of points clear. First, Jamal Abu-Baker, who is Shukri’s brother, is not designated a terrorist in the U.S. Also, Hamas is one of the Palestinian wings of the Muslim Brotherhood, not the only one. She then asked, The Muslim Brotherhood in fact operates separately from Hamas in Palestine, isn’t that correct? Miranda’s response: Im not certain of that.

After a few questions by defense attorney Greg Westfall, Joshua Dratel clarified Hamas’ affiliation with the Muslim Brotherhood. He displayed the Hamas Charter and pointed at the title, which stated that Hamas was indeed one of the wings of the Muslim Brotherhood. For nearly a minute, an agitated Miranda insisted on going around the fact. But Dratel seemed fed up. Pass the witness, Dratel said, picking up his files and walking back to his chair.

Check back soon for the rest of the update, which will include a second testimony by self-proclaimed Hamas expert Matthew Levitt as well as testimonies by IRS agent Dawn Goldberg, Dallas Morning News reporter Steve McGonigle and former HLF volunteer Mohamed Shorbagi.

Self-proclaimed Hamas expert Matthew Levitt, who testified the first week of the retrial, came back for a brief second testimony. Prosecutor Barry Jonas began direct examination by asking Levitt, Is it significant that three of the defendants in the case are in Musa Abu Marzook’s phone book? Levitt response: “These people are in his personal—literally—black book.” Jonas then told Levitt to explain what the payments between Abu Marzook and the HLF meant. This is a direct financial relationship which indicates a relationship of trust. This is a large amount of money, Levitt said.

Prosecutors then played a video excerpt shown to the jury earlier in the trial of a speech by Abdullah Azzam, a Palestinian spiritual leader who fought alongside Afghans against the Soviets during the late 1970s. In the 1988 video, Hamas leader Azzam proclaimed passionately in Arabic, It is a duty for all Muslims to do jihad with their souls and money. Jonas pointed out the flashing request to donate money to the HLF. Also shown earlier in the trial was a 1900 video clip of showing defendant Mohmmad El-Mezain referring to Azzam’s speech in which he encouraged all Muslims to abstain from refreshments one week and from meat another week. The money saved by abstaining from these items can be sent to Palestinians to help them fight the Israeli occupation, he said.

As for the overseas speakers who helped raise funds for the HLF, many of them were Hamas, Jonas claimed. And Hamas members usually use Hamas speakers to help raise funds, he said. He concluded by saying that it’s surprising for people’s relationship with Hamas to change after the U.S. designated them in 1995. The relationship is expected to be more covert after the designation, Levitt said.

As a bold statement, defense attorneys chose not to cross-examine Levitt.

Ninth Witness

Dawn Goldberg, an agent with the Internal Revenue Service since 1985, was the next government witness to approach the stand. Tax-exempt organizations, like the HLF, must fill out annual Information Returns (Form 990) instead of Tax Returns. The main reason for this, she said, is to tell the public about the charity and allow them to make informed decisions before they donate. Jonas then asked her to compare Arabic HLF meeting minutes to English ones. She said there were differences between the two.

Jonas then asked her if it was legal to deal financially with Hamas after their designation in 1995.

Absolutely not, she said.

Even if the money goes toward charity? Jonas asked.

It wouldn’t make a difference. It’s still benefiting Hamas, she said.

Theresa Duncan—who represents defendant Shukri Abu-Baker—made a couple of points clear during her cross-examination of Goldberg. First, the IRS never audited the HLF. Second, the HLF included the $210,000 payment from Abu Marzook on their 1992 Information Return. John Cline—who represents defendant Ghassan Elashi—clarified that Goldberg did not know whether the Arabic and English meeting minutes represented the same meeting.

In his re-direct examination of Goldberg, Jonas attempted to explain why the IRS did not audit the HLF.

Does the FBI call the IRS and tell them they are conducting an intelligence investigation? he asked.

To my knowledge, that’s not something they would do, she said.

In his 1992 tax return, Abu Marzook stated he donated $25,000 to the HLF—not $210,000, said Jonas. He then showed an HLF receipt to Abu Marzook with a $25,000 payment. He said the $25,000 payment doesn’t match the $210,000 payment listed on HLF’s Information Return.

Duncan only had one response question: Was the HLF receipt signed? Goldberg’s response: No.

Tenth Witness

Steve McGonigle, a senior reporter for the Dallas Morning News, was the next government witness to testify. He talked about his 1999 trip to the West Bank and Gaza for a story about the HLF and its alleged ties with Hamas. He met with a fixer—an interpreter and guide—who arranged for McGonigle to meet with a couple Hamas leaders. Their first stop: the home of Hamas spokesman Doctor Mahmud Al-Zahar. The meeting was casual, McGonigle said. They drank tea as McGonigle asked Al-Zahar about the HLF. He told me he was aware of HLF’s existence, but he does not know that much about it. He also said he met Shukri Abu-Baker once at an event in California, where they had a casual conversation about a member of Abu-Baker’s family. The interview, which was conducted in English, lasted about an hour. Jonas then clarified that Al-Zahar did not tell McGonigle he was an overseas speaker for the HLF.

McGonigle next stop during his trip: the home of Hamas founder Ahmad Yasin. This meeting was short, formal and conducted in Arabic, McGonigle said. And the atmosphere was tense, he added. Ahmad Yasin pretended to know next to nothing about the HLF. He made a joke, saying perhaps the HLF can give me money for a school I’m building.

McGonigle’s third stop at the HLF office in Gaza was spontaneous. He said he was greeted by a friendly office manager, and they talked about HLF’s work in Palestine. They also talked about HLF’s alleged affiliation with Hamas, which they denied. The office manager was not as friendly to McGonigle when he met with him the next day. Their tone changed, Jonas said, because of their immediate consultation with a couple of HLF employees in Dallas, including Shukri Abu-Baker, Ghassan Elashi and Haitham Maghawri. The three made a couple of phone calls to the office manager named Mohamed Abou Muharam.

Shukri told Abou Muharam, “This journalist is a Zionist, meaning he is not a friend.”

Jonas paused the audio and asked McGonigle, Are you a Zionist?

No, McGonigle said.

He then resumed the wiretapped conversation, where Shukri told Abou Muharam “He has been attacking the foundation here in Dallas, in America for four years … He is a part of a concentrated campaign in America in cooperation with the Jewish lobby … They are on a campaign overall to cut off the aid from the Palestinian state.”

Jonas paused the audio again, this time asking McGonigle if he’s with the Jewish lobby.

“No,” he replied.

Abu-Baker concluded by telling Abou Muharam to record the interview with McGonigle and make sure he does not meet with a family of prisoner since he has a way of twisting things around.

Defense attorney Greg Westfall—who represents Abdulrahman Odeh—was the first to cross-examine McGonigle. Briefly, he clarified a couple of points. First, the HLF officials in Dallas were genuinely surprised that McGonigle visited their office in Palestine. Second, McGonigle spent an hour having tea with Hamas leader Mahmud Al-Zahar.

Linda Moreno—who represents defendant Ghassan Elashi—was next to cross-examine McGonigle. She clarified that the defendants did not trust McGonigle since he had been writing critical articles attempting to link the HLF with Hamas since 1996. In fact, his first story’s headline read, “Paper trail leads to Hamas.” She said the stories were also viewed by community members as “unfair and inaccurate.” And many community members, including some of the defendants, protested in front of the Dallas Morning News office. She also clarified that he visited the Ramallah Zakat (Charity) Committee, to which the HLF gave money, and it did not seem like it was controlled by Hamas. McGonigle admit that during his research, he did not inquire about whether the board members of the HLF Gaza Office are Hamas members.

Defense attorney Nancy Hollander asked McGonigle if he was surprised by what he saw in Gaza. “You couldn’t visit Gaza and not be affected,” McGonigle said. “People lived in very desperate conditions.”

Jonas then countered, Does your personal affection make you want to go and support Hamas, to which McGonigle said, No.

Hollander then asked, Did you understand why people would want to provide charity for these people. McGonigle’s answer: Yes.

Eleventh Witness

Mohamed Shorbagi, who used to help raise funds for the HLF, was the government’s next witness. Shorbagi is a Palestinian who lived in Rome, Georgia who in 2004, pled guilty to providing financial support to Hamas. Because of his guilty plea, his sentence was dropped from life to 15 years. It was decreased to 7 years after testifying in a recent case in Chicago. His ongoing cooperation with the government will earn him a substantially lesser sentence or no sentence at all.

He walked in the room with his eyes on the floor. Wearing a dark oversized jacket, Shorbagi gave a long quiet sigh, then sat on his chair and whispered, “Bismillah Ir-Rahman Ir-Rahim. In the name of Allah, the Most Beneficent, the Most Merciful.” He began by saying he was born in Khan Yunus in Gaza and lived there until he immigrated to the U.S. at age 18. He became a member of MAYA, or Muslim Arab Youth Association, where most of the speakers were Muslim Brotherhood members. We don’t date, drink or party. MAYA was there to preserve the Islamic culture, he said. He told the jury he considers himself an observant Muslim because he prays and fasts. And he also considers himself an Islamist.

When prosecutor Jim Jacks asked him whether he kept up with evens in Palestine, Shorbagi said, As someone who lived under the Israeli occupation, the only thing you grow up with is seeing the occupation and the killing of Palestinians, so, yes I kept with the news. He then said bluntly, I am a supporter of Hamas. He said he was also involved with the Islamic Association for Palestine, which after the 1987 Intifada, or uprising, used to reprint leaflets by Hamas and distributed them in the U.S.

Prosecutors then played a video of a conference, where Hamas was mentioned in speeches and songs. The footage also depicted Palestinians resisting the Israeli occupation by throwing rocks and protesting. He then spoke briefly about Al-Majd organization, which he said was a section of Hamas that tortured individuals who collaborated with Israeli. He asked to translate mujahideen, he said the Arabic word had two translations: Those who struggle or freedom fighters. He said he has met all the defendants except Abdulrahman Odeh. He identified each one, pointing at Mufid Abdulqader, Ghassan Elashi, Mohammad El-Mezain and Shukri Abu-Baker.

Prosecutors concluded the day played a 1992 video showing a band singing patriotic Palestinian songs, a speech by Hamas leader Khalid Mishal and fundraising portion by defendant Mohammad El-Mezain.

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