DALLAS — A judge declared a mistrial Monday for four former leaders of a Muslim charity accused of funding terrorism, after chaos broke out in the court when three jurors disputed some verdicts that had been read.
The fifth defendant, former Holy Land Foundation for Relief and Development Chairman Mohammed El-Mezain, was acquitted of most charges against him. Jurors were unable to reach a verdict on another charge, which resulted in a mistrial for that count.
The outcome came about an hour after a confusing scene in the courtroom, in which three former leaders of the group were initially found not guilty of most counts involving funneling money to terrorists. But when jurors were polled, three jurors said those verdicts were read incorrectly.
U.S. District Judge A. Joe Fish sent the jury back to resolve the differences, but after about an hour he said he received a note from the jury saying 11 of the 12 felt further deliberations would not lead them to reach a unanimous decision. Then, he declared a mistrial.
The jury forewoman said she was surprised by the three jurors’ actions.
“When we voted, there was no issue in the vote,” she said. “No one spoke up any different. I really don’t understand where it is coming from.”
Group allegedly aided Hamas
In all, five former Holy Land leaders and the group were accused of providing aid to the Middle Eastern militant group Hamas. The federal government designated Hamas a terrorist group in 1995 and again in 1997, making financial transactions with the group illegal.
The cases for two defendants initially found not guilty along with El-Mezain ended in mistrial. The jurors did not reach verdicts on charges against the foundation itself or two individuals, former chief executive Shukri Abu Baker and former chairman Ghassan Elashi, resulting in mistrials for them, too.
The mistrial was at least a temporary victory for the five former Holy Land leaders, who said they ran a legitimate charity that helped Muslim children and families made homeless or poor by the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
It was not immediately clear if the government will retry any of the defendants. A gag order preventing those involved from speaking about the case still stands, the judge said.
The initial verdicts read Monday, following 19 days of deliberations, said three former leaders of what was once the nation’s largest Muslim charity were not guilty of funneling illegal aid to terrorists. Charity fundraiser Mufid Abdulqader was cleared on all counts. El-Mezain and the group’s New Jersey representative, Abdulrahman Odeh, were initially acquitted on most counts.
When Fish polled the jurors a second time after more deliberations, they agreed on finding El-Mezain not guilty on 31 counts with no decision on the other, conspiracy to provide material support to a foreign terrorist organization. That resulted in a mistrial on that count.
Jurors heard two months of testimony, mostly from FBI and Israeli agents who described thousands of pages of documents and hours of videotapes seized from Holy Land, from former associates of the group, and from Palestinian charities that got money from Holy Land.
Prosecutors said Hamas controlled those Palestinian charities. Their contention hung largely on the word of one witness, a lawyer for the Israeli domestic security agency Shin Bet, who was allowed to testify under a pseudonym.
Defense lawyers argued that none of the Palestinian charities aided by Holy Land were ever designated as terrorist organizations by the U.S. government.
Holy Land was founded in California in the late 1980s and moved to the Dallas area in 1992. FBI surveillance of the group’s leaders dates to at least 1993, when agents eavesdropped on a Philadelphia meeting in which participants talked of supporting Hamas’ goal of derailing a peace agreement between Israel and Palestinians.
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