Government stumbles in Holy Land trial

DALLAS — The long-awaited verdicts in one of the country’s most critical civil rights cases were revealed Oct. 22 at the Earle Cabell Federal Building downtown. The Holy Land Foundation, the largest organization providing charitable aid to beleaguered Palestinians, was effectively exonerated of “terrorism” charges.

The judge declared a mistrial, a maneuver that, while it laid the basis for another possible trial and the continued short-term suppression of the charity, nevertheless represented a stiff setback to the Bush administration’s six-year effort to tarnish Muslim charitable efforts.

One of the five leading defendants was found “not guilty” outright on 31 of 32 counts, and two of the others had most charges dismissed. But dissenting comments by three of the 12 jurors created a confusing ending for the days’ decisions. The prosecutors quickly called the entire process a “hung jury,” and publicly vowed to retry the defendants.

Dallas civil rights activists were all smiles. The Hungry for Justice Coalition said in a statement, “The charges brought against these individuals were viewed by many people in this country and worldwide as an attempt to block humanitarian assistance to Palestinians suffering under a brutal Israeli occupation.”

It continued: “They were also seen as a means to chill the First Amendment rights and charitable giving of American Muslims and other people of conscience opposed to our nation’s one-sided policies in the Middle East.”

The coalition called the proceedings “in essence … an Israeli trial tried on American soil in which guilt by association was used as a substitute for actual evidence.”

The Bush administration’s efforts began in 2001, when it shut down the charitable institution and froze its assets. A general chill in all Islamic fund-raising operations was clearly the goal, although the administration claimed to be “fighting terrorism” by denying contributions that might have gone to Hamas, which had recently been designated a terrorist organization.

The government never dared claim the organization was directly associated with any violent acts, but relied on obscure references, some of them from secret and unnamed Israeli intelligence agents.

Legal maneuvers continued for years. Even in the last few weeks, the trial continued to make headlines because a juror had to be replaced for mysterious reasons. Eventually, a verdict was reached, but it had to be sealed for three days to await the trial judge’s return. When the verdict was finally read, some jurors, also for unknown reasons, decided to dispute it.

Texas has never seen such a long trial nor such questionable activities around the delivering of jury verdicts that had must have been unanimous just days earlier. None of the accounts by commercial newspersons seems to have taken note of this apparent contradiction, reporting instead a “hung jury.”

Beginning last August, civil liberties activists in North Texas set up lunchtime vigils across the street from the federal building. Various organizations, including the Dallas Peace Center, declared themselves in solidarity with the defense effort.

Activist John Wolf was there every day. “These are good people to the heart,” he said. “This is about Islamophobia. It’s about a foreign charge being tried in an American court.” Wolf pointed out that all the organizations in the occupied territories to which the foundation had sent funds are still open and receiving donations, and thus the defendants had not sent any money to terrorist groups.

“I think that [today’s events] mean the rule of law still exists in this country, and that ultimately jurors can determine guilt — not the federal government, not government policy, not FBI implementing any policy instead of law,” Wolf said.

Asked if he thought there would be a celebration, he replied, “I think just tears. These people are really loved by the community. When the Holy Land ‘not guilty’ verdict was announced, there was not a dry eye among all the many people upstairs.”

Activist Beth Freed, who has worked with Hungry for Justice since the trial began, said, “I’m very happy now. Of course, the whole time we were cautiously optimistic. I was very hopeful, especially as the deliberations went on. The jury was seeing through the government’s convoluted arguments.”

She continued: “I saw so many things in this case that made me feel sad as an American. I felt like the government overstepped their boundaries in what’s considered legitimate in our justice process. But the outcome has really given my faith back in the justice process.”