The following is taken from transcripts in the second criminal trial of the Holy Land Foundation:

Witnesses for the Prosecution
FBI Special Agent Robert Miranda Said HLF used known Hamas activists to speak at fundraising events. On cross-examination, admitted that these speakers were not listed as terrorists, and it was not illegal to have them as speakers. Also testified that family connections establish a link between some HLF leaders and Hamas. Defendant Ghassan Elashi’s cousin is married to a high-ranking Hamas leader who is on the government lists.
FBI Special Agent Lara Burns Testified about an HLF letter referring to the zakat committees as “ours” and said that HLF contacts with the committees were Hamas leaders. On cross-examination, admitted that most of these individuals are not on any government watch list.
  • An agent in Shin Bet (Israeli domestic security agency) who testified anonymously in a closed courtroom. Testified that Hamas funding comes primarily from international groups like HLF and that the zakat committees are staffed by known Hamas members. Said the Israeli military found materials praising suicide bombers in searches of zakat committee offices.

The defense presented evidence to discredit prosecution witnesses and establish that HLF’s funds were spent for charitable purposes. Defense attorney Nancy Holland asked why the zakat committees were not listed by the government if they really are linked to terrorism. They also showed a video of staff from HLF’s Gaza office delivering food to the family of an ambulance driver killed while attempting to assist a child wounded in a shoot-out between Israelis and Palestinians. The HLF paperwork referred to him as a “martyr.”

Witnesses for the Defense
Edward Abington Former U.S. consul general in Jerusalem and a second-ranking intelligence official in the State Department Testified that while posted in the Middle East, he received daily intelligence reports from the CIA and never was told zakat committees had links to Hamas. Said Israeli intelligence is unreliable. He also described visits to zakat committee offices and described conditions in refugee camps.
John Bryant Attorney and former member of Congress who represented HLF between 1997 and 2000. Testified about his attempts to get guidance from the FBI and State Department on what groups were legal for HLF to fund; he got no response to his inquiries. He was never told HLF could not work with zakat committees.
Nathan Brown George Washington University Professor, who said the testimony of “Avi” relied too heavily on press accounts and other documents without any context. Supported Abington’s assertion that posters praising suicide bombers were not evidence of terrorist ties, since, on a trip to the Palestinian territories, “every blank wall was plastered with posters of martyrs,” noting that Hamas is a political party with broad public support.
Natalia Suleiman Former HLF administrative assistant, who testified about food aid and clean water programs the organization operated in Turkey, Albania, Jordan and Lebanon, as well as the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Described the expense documentation process.
Mohammad Wafa Yaish
  • Former HLF accountant testified that HLF operated its programs without regard to political affiliation and that employees were not allowed to visit political websites while at work.

More on the Evidence

To counter the defendants’ argument that there is no criminal violation when all funds are used to support charitable programs, hospitals, and schools, the prosecution presented a new witness, Georgetown University professor Bruce Hoffman, as an expert on terrorism. He told the jury that throughout history, terrorist groups have used charities as fronts to raise money and build good will “almost without exception.”

The prosecution spent the first four of its five weeks presenting witnesses and evidence that focused on the defendants’ political views about the conflict in the Middle East and their ties to suspected militants. It also showed videos of violent attacks, although the defendants were not accused of violent acts. Much of this evidence centered on events that took place before Hamas was designated as a terrorist organization. For example, FBI agent Lara Burns testified about a 1993 meeting in Philadelphia attended by HLF representatives, which Hamas sympathizers are also alleged to have attended. Another FBI agent, Robert Miranda, testified about HLF-sponsored fundraising events and Palestinian festivals that included Hamas leaders and speakers. Other evidence focused on the defendants’ political views and the “jihadist” content of songs and skits at these events.

Evidence about HLF communications with Hamas after the 1995 designation included a 1997 fundraising conference call with two alleged Hamas speakers, including one who praised a Hamas bomb maker. An ex-HLF employee, Mohamed Shorbagi, also testified that HLF raised money for Hamas at Palestinian festivals and by sending money via the zakat committees after 1995. The defense said Shorbagi lied in order to get a potential life sentence reduced to seven years in a deal that required him to plead guilty to using HLF to support Hamas.

The defendants presented two expert witnesses, Dr. John Esposito, a Georgetown professor and expert on Islam, and Dr. David McDonald, a professor at Indiana University and an expert on Palestinian culture and folklore. Their testimony sought to set the evidence about the content of songs and statements in context. For example, Esposito said the traditional meaning of the word “jihad” relates to spiritual struggle, not violence, and “economic jihad” refers to giving to the poor.

Summary of the Fifth Circuit’s Holdings Regarding Evidence

Issues where the court rejected the defendants’ arguments include:

  • The content of the defendants’ speeches and statements about political issues in the Middle East could be admitted as evidence against them, since the Supreme Court upheld use of speech in Holder v. Humanitarian Law Project and was considered in the context of other conduct by the defendants.
  • The results of searches of HLF’s offices without a warrant were admissible because HLF did not challenge the order blocking (freezing) its funds.
  • The prosecution did not need to give defendants access to all the wiretapped conversations it used, as some evidence was classified.
  • The defendants were not entitled to see warrant applications for surveillance submitted to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court.
  • Two witnesses, both employed by the Israeli government, could testify using pseudonyms.
  • Evidence about Hamas violence was admissible and not unduly inflammatory because it served a probative purpose of providing context for the case

Issues where the court ruled in favor defendants, but said were not sufficiently serious to overturn the convictions were:

  • The expert testimony of Treasury official John O’Brien should not have been admitted, since he offered a legal conclusion that the fact that HLF gave funds to undesignated zakat committees was insignificant.
  • The testimony of Steven Simon, a former employee of the National Security Council, about the role of violence in the Middle East peace process was not relevant and should have been excluded.