Five defendants in the terrorism-financing trial of the Texas-based charity Holy Land Foundation were not convicted on any of nearly 200 charges when verdicts were read Monday.
They were not acquitted of all charges either, but that didn’t stop a crowd of supporters from celebrating outside the Dallas courtroom, hoisting attorney Greg Westfall into the air while shouting “Praise God” in Arabic.
The charity, shut down in 2001, and five of its lead organizers, Shukri Abu Baker, Ghassan Elashi, Mohammed El-Mezain, Abdulrahman Odeh, and Mufid Abdulqader, faced charges that included aiding a terrorist organization, conspiracy, money laundering and tax charges.
After a three month-long trial, El-Mezain was acquitted of 31 of 32 counts.
Odeh and Abdulqader were initially acquitted of most of the counts against them, but after two jurors said they didn’t agree with the verdict, the judge declared a mistrial.
Prosecutors can, and said they will, retry the case on the one remaining conspiracy charge against El-Mezain, and all of the charges against the others.
But the results have been widely described as a major setback for the federal government’s strategy of prosecuting alleged terrorist fund-raising in America.
“The prosecution went to the well, and it came up empty. It could not produce a guilty verdict,” said Mahdi Bray, of the Muslim American Society Freedom Foundation, during a press conference after the trial.
“This is not the first time that American taxpayers’ dollars have been wasted on this type of fear and smear, criminalize campaign within the American Muslim community,” he said. “Three times, our government has gone on this long fishing expedition and they’ve come up empty… When you go fishing, after a while when you don’t catch anything, you need to cut bait and go home.”
Bray was referring to two other cases in the last two years in Florida and Illinois, in which defendants were acquitted of aiding terrorism.
One juror in the Holy Land trial has spoken out since its untidy end, saying that despite being bombarded with documents, there was very little clear evidence to convict the men or the organization.
“I thought they were not guilty based on the evidence,” said juror William Neal, a 33-year-old art director, on camera while speaking to Dallas news agencies.
“There were too many holes. They need to patch those holes. From what I saw, not guilty.”
He said that the high number of charges left some of jurors confused and that fear and emotion at times tainted deliberations.
“They tried to overwhelm us with charges. They just put too much on us to deal with.
It was a way to overwhelm… It was a ploy.”
Neal said the prosecution used images of terrorist bombings having nothing to do with the evidence.
“I think it was political. If you think about some of the witnesses… You have an anonymous witness from the Israeli government. He told in open court that he’s paid to be here. So when you have all these biases, I’m just like, this seems very political to me… A lot of the evidence that we saw was fear-based. I mean if you’re ignorant, or you have no idea about any culture… or you don’t know that HAMAS was once political — and still is a political figure… It’s fear, you know, ‘Oh it’s terrorism, Osama Bin Laden, 9-11.’ ”
He said he was skeptical of the government being able to get any convictions in a second attempt.
“I have a funny feeling it’s going to be the same verdict… I don’t even know where to begin, they shouldn’t retry this case like they did this time. If they’re going to retry, they need to go back to the drawing board and find some more evidence, dig up somebody else’s backyard, do something. It’s a waste. It was a waste of my time to go this long and not have anything, to come up empty.”
During the press conference after the trial, executive director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, Nihad Awad, said that political activists are being targeted and compared the prosecutions to McCarthyism.
“We do not condone terrorism. We condemn terrorism. We have condemned terrorism. And we will continue to condemn terrorism. To associate the Muslim community with terrorism, to lead this country by fear, is really a lack of faith.”
Noor Elashi, daughter of one of the defendants, said that she was always confident her father had done nothing wrong.
“My dad was singled out for feeding, clothing and educating the children of Palestine… because giving charity to Palestinian people has become a crime in this country.”
The government began investigating Holy Land Foundation 14 years ago for alleged connections with HAMAS.
The U.S. declared HAMAS a terrorist organization in 1995.