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Jury selection begins in Muslim charity case

Ghassan Elashi, Shukri Abu Baker
Ghassan Elashi, left, chairman of Holy Land Foundation for Relief and Development, is shown in a A Sept, 26 2001,file photo, and former Chairman Shukri Abu Baker, shown in a Dec. 4, 2001, file photom are among those accused of using a U.S. charity to funnel money to the Palestinian militant group Hamas. AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

Lawyers began quizzing potential jurors Monday in the trial of leaders of a Muslim charity accused of funneling millions of dollars to the militant group Hamas.

Prosecutors have said Hamas used the money to support the families of suicide bombers in the Middle East.

Although the FBI investigated the men and the charity in the 1990s, the Bush administration raised the profile of the case after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. Federal authorities raided and shut down the charity, the Holy Land Foundation for Relief and Development, that year.

Defense lawyers say the charity helped build hospitals and schools for Palestinians living under Israeli occupation but is not connected to Hamas. The defendants and their supporters say the prosecution is based on anti-Arab bias.

The trial before federal District Judge A. Joe Fish is expected to last several months, and opening statements are expected to begin July 23. Jury selection is expected to last all week.

The defendants named in a 42-count indictment in 2004 are Holy Land; Shukri Abu Baker, the charity’s president; Ghassan Elashi, its chairman; Abdulrahman Odeh; Mohammad El-Mezain; and Mufid Abdulqader. Two other men named in the indictment remain fugitives.

The charges include supporting a foreign terrorist group, money laundering, conspiracy and filing false tax returns.

According to the indictment, Holy Land raised more than $57 million from 1992 to 2001 and sent about $36 million to individuals and groups tied to Hamas, including $12.4 million after former President Bill Clinton designated Hamas a terrorist group in 1995, which made contact with the group illegal.

Elashi is in federal prison near Dallas on other convictions, including financial dealings with a top Hamas official. Baker, Odeh, El-Mezain and Abdulqader have been free while preparing for the trial, a prosecution spokeswoman said.

In a court filing in May that spelled out much of their case, prosecutors said Holy Land was created “to support the Hamas agenda,” which includes suicide bombings and other terrorist attacks.

Prosecutors said documents seized in 2004 from the Virginia home of an unindicted co-conspirator showed that Elashi, Baker and El-Mezain were part of a committee coordinating support for Hamas in the United States. Prosecutors said the FBI monitored the committee’s actions, including meetings to discuss raising money for Hamas.

The investigation into Holy Land lasted more than a decade and included surveillance and wiretaps.

Defense attorneys said they will argue that most of the case against their clients is hearsay and flawed. They seized on summaries of FBI-wiretapped conversations that claimed Holy Land officials made anti-Semitic slurs. But the comments weren’t found in the unabridged 13-page transcript.