HLF Retrial: Opening Statements (Sept. 22, 2008)

Same soup, different bowl.

That’s what federal prosecutors presented to a federal jury Monday, Sept. 22, 2008 at the first day of the retrial of the high-profile Holy Land Foundation case.

The judge opened the trial by giving instructions to a 12-member jury with four alternates.

The defendants are presumed innocent until proven guilty, he began. The indictment is not evidence … The burden of proof is on the government … Do not discuss this case with anyone until after it’s over … Make sure you don’t watch media reports about this case … Do not try to do any research about this case … Do not form any opinion until all the evidence is in … Leave your notes in the jury room … And do not talk to the lawyers, defendants, families and agents in this case.

Next, prosecutor Jim Jacks read aloud the lingering indictment, in which defendant Mohmmad El-Mezain is charged with one count, defendants Abdulrahman Odeh and Mufid Abdulqader are charged with three counts each, defendant Shukri Abu-Baker is charged with 34 counts and defendant Ghassan Elashi is charged with 35 counts.

Soon afterward, each defendant stood up with their heads high, giving pleas of Not Guilty.

Prosecutors then gave their opening statements, which sounded awfully familiar to the one from last year.

A jittery Elisabeth Shapiro, an attorney for the U.S. government, talked about HLF’s establishment and an airbrushed version of Palestinian history, where she said a car accident caused the Intifada in 1987.

She also discussed the creation of Hamas. It’s political wing seeks to terrorize the local people through violence, she said. It’s social wing indoctrinates the population, molding people—including children—into becoming Hamas supporters. They run schools, where children are taught to hate Israel and love martyrdom. Their goal is to reach out and win the hearts and minds of the Palestinian people. The violence caused by Hamas destabilizes the region and prevents Palestinians and Israelis from reaching peace.

[One might wonder what role the Israeli occupation of the Palestinian territories plays in destabilizing the region and preventing peace.]

Defendant Mohammad El-Mezain raised funds that ultimately went to Hamas through his fiery speeches, she argued. Defendant Mufid Abdulqader criticized Israel in his Palestinian songs and skits. Defendant Abdulrahman Odeh called a suicide bombing a “beautiful operation.”

She talked about the 1993 meeting in Philadelphia, where a group of Arab-American intellectuals gathered to discuss worldly issues.

The meeting tells you about the “knowledge and intent” of the defendants, like Shukri Abu-Baker and Ghassan Elashi who were among the attendees, she said. The group discussed how to defeat the Oslo Accords. They hid their support for Hamas by referring to it as “Samah” (Hamas spelt backwards.)

She told the jury that defense lawyers were going to argue that none of the zakat (charity) committees on the U.S. Treasury Department’s list of Specially Designated Terrorists. But that shouldn’t matter because Hamas is on the list, and the zakat committees are controlled by Hamas. Terrorist organizations are like a cancer. You blight it out in one place and it pops up in other places.

She asked the jury for three requests:

One, take notes. Two, think like a terrorist organization. “This case is about is about unraveling deception,” she said. And three, listen to all evidence and focus on the law.

She concluded: I have one prediction. Defense attorneys will mention that these men did not commit violent acts.

“But these men put money into the hands of terrorists,” she said.

Defense attorney Nancy Hollander—who represents Shukri Abu-Baker—was next to give her opening statement by beginning with this: Not one of these men is charged with a single act of violence.

She gave a much more genuine description of Palestine’s history. In 1948, Jews came from all over the world to Palestine, but it wasn’t empty land. Palestinians were already living there with homes and olive groves and farms. Between 750,000 and one million Palestinian people were forced to flee to refugee camps. The Israeli occupation—through Jewish settlements, bypass roads and checkpoints—caused tremendous “economic suffering” and a “huge humanitarian crisis,” she said.

She added that the HLF gave money to some of the same zakat committees with which U.S. government agencies—like USAID (the United States Agency for International Development)—gave money.

As for the Oslo Accords, it is not a crime in the U.S. to speak against it. In addition, it took place two years before Hamas was designated and the attendees met at a public hotel using their own names.

She talked about Jewish-American doctor Baruch Goldstein’s 1994 massacre of 29 Palestinians praying in a mosque in Hebron. Not long after that, Hamas began their use of suicide bombings. And not long after that, the U.S. government designated Hamas as a terrorist organization.

As she wrapped up, she said, The HLF was not a Hamas supporter. It was a charity that was desperately needed in Palestine. It was Shukri Abu-Baker’s life, it was his love and it was hope for the people of Palestine.

Defense attorney Joshua Dratel—who represents Mohammad El-Mezain—gave a brief opening statement. The prosecution’s case is more “quantity than quality,” he said. He also touched upon the zakat committees to which the HLF gave money. They are all licensed, they all pre-existed Hamas. Never until today were they designated by the U.S. And until now, they have not been shut down by the Israeli government, he said.

He then added, The government will show you a small slice of the pie. But when you zoom out, you’ll see an entire different perspective.

He talked about his client’s early life (click here to read Mr. El-Mezain’s biography.) In addition, he said the HLF knew Hamas was designated, so they did what any other highly-regulated business would do: “Adjust to the new law and comply with it.”

Marlo Cadeddu—who represents Mufid Abdulqader—began her opening statement by telling the jury about her client’s life story (Click here to read Mr. Abdulqader’s biography.) Regarding Shapiro’s comment on a car accident sparking the 1987 Intifada, Cadeddu said, “that’s white-washing the event.” She clarified the picture by telling the jury that an Israeli tank bulldozed several Palestinians. This caused so much resentment among the Palestinian people, thereby sparking the Intifada.

She also clarified the meaning of “martyr”—a term that will be used plenty of times over the next several weeks. In many cases, a martyr is someone who has died as a result of the Israeli occupation.

Mr. Abdulqader was one of a dozen band members and numerous volunteers. Then why is it, she asked, that her client was singled out? The answer: Khalid Mishal, who is Mr. Abdulqader’s half brother. Mr. Abdulqader is on trial for practicing his free speech rights and being related to the wrong person, she concluded.

Defense attorney Greg Westfall—who represents Abdulrahman Odeh—started by displaying an image of a Palestinian orphan from HLF’s orphan sponsorship program. Pointing at the picture, he said, That’s reason why Abdul Odeh went to work everyday.

He went on to describe Mr. Odeh. “He was a relief worker,” Mr. Westfall said. While living in New Jersey, Mr. Odeh set up a food pantry for the poor in the area.

He then spoke about Mr. Odeh calling a suicide bombing a “beautiful operation.” He reminded the jury about the daily Palestinian suffering, like the demolished homes, the women in labor dieing at checkpoints. Palestinians everywhere naturally become furious at the effects of the Israeli occupation. He then concluded by saying, “I can’t wait until you hear this phone call because it shows how very human this man is.”

Defense attorney Linda Moreno—who represents Ghassan Elashi—was the last to give her opening statement. She started by saying that Mr. Elashi never funded terrorism and never sent a nickel to Hamas. Politics is at play in this case. And Israel has a dangerous influence in this case, with documents and witnesses from Israel.

She continued, From 1967 to 1948, many Palestinians died, poverty deepened because the occupation killed. The HLF began not to support Hamas, but to support Palestinians at that desperate time in history.

She then reminded the jury that not one of the zakat committees are on the U.S. Treasury Department’s list of designated terrorists. She asked a simple question about the Palestinian children who, according to the prosecutors, were “brainwashed”: Does feeding children brainwash them or the brutal Israeli occupation, which has robbed them of hope? She ended by showing the jury a giant photo of half a dozen children wearing backpacks. This was the intent of the HLF, she said, directing them to the photo.

First Witness

Prosecutors then called their first witness to the stand, self-proclaimed Hamas expert Matthew Levitt, a petite fellow with round glasses and dark thick hair combed to the side. The first objective of prosecutor Barry Jonas was to make the witness credible. He has a doctorate from the school of law and diplomacy at Tufts University. He worked as a counterterrorism analyst for the FBI. He’s worked for the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. He’s written a book titled Hamas: Politics, Charity and Terrorism in the Service of Jihad. He has received awards and testified in front of Congress.

Hamas seeks to establish a Palestinian Islamic state in Israel, Gaza Strip and West Bank—all of that land, Levitt said, pointing at a map of the area. He added that Hamas has three wings—social, political and military—that are “all intertwined.”

To Levitt, the 1987 Intifada was sparked by an Israeli driver who lost control of a tank and ran over Palestinians. For half an hour that seemed like half a day, Jonas flipped through the Hamas Charter, asking Levitt to read excerpts from the document.

He then offered his thoughts on Hamas’ concept of suicide bombings: “It’s self-sacrifice on behalf on the nation, death in the sake of Allah, which is the loftiest of wishes for Hamas members.”

Prosecutors will continue the direct examination of Levitt on Tuesday.

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