Friday, February 02, 2007

U.S. jury acquits two men of Hamas conspiracy

U.S. jury acquits two men of Hamas conspiracy
By Andrew Stern

CHICAGO (Reuters) - A U.S. jury found two Palestinian-born men not guilty on Thursday of carrying out what prosecutors said was a 15-year conspiracy to illegally finance Hamas terrorist activities in Israel.

Muhammad Salah, 53, and co-defendant Abdelhaleem Ashqar, 48, were acquitted of racketeering conspiracy, the major charge against them and one that could have drawn a sentence of 40 years to life.

They were found guilty on lesser obstruction of justice charges, relating in Salah's case to a statement denying membership in Hamas. Ashqar was found guilty on two counts for refusing to answer questions from two grand juries. The obstruction charges call for up to a five-year sentence, but also allow for probation, lawyers said.

"It is better than we thought," a tearful Salah, a businessman from the Chicago suburb of Bridgeview, Illinois, said as he hugged supporters just outside the courtroom. "We are good people, not terrorists."

"It's a great victory," his lawyer, Michael Deutsch said.

The verdicts will be appealed, defense attorney Matthew Piers said.

The judge set sentencing for June 15, and allowed both defendants to remain free on bond.

Women were on their knees outside the courtroom praying before and after the jury's verdict was read, which came following three weeks of jury deliberations and a 10-week trial.

The 2004 federal grand jury indictment said Salah, who became a U.S. citizen in 1979, was the point person from 1988 until 2003 for money transfers that went to Hamas, and also provided recruits and delivered messages on behalf of the accused Hamas leader in the United States, Mousa Mohammed Abu Marzook.

A former U.S. doctoral student, Marzook is believed to be in Syria.

Prosecutors described Ashqar, who has taught at Howard University in Washington, as a coordinator and archivist for Hamas' military wing.


Hamas leads the Palestinian government, but Israel, the European Union and the United States regard it as a terrorist group and it is illegal for U.S. citizens to contribute to it.

John Ashcroft, the attorney general at the time of the indictment, said the defendants had been "taking advantage of the freedoms of an open society to foster and finance acts of terror."

"This is the second time the United States government has tried to bring this (Israeli-Palestinian) conflict into a criminal court of law," Ashqar's attorney, William Moffitt, said. He referred to a Tampa, Florida, jury's acquittal of a computer sciences professor on most terror funding charges in 2005.

In January 1993, Salah was arrested at an Israeli checkpoint and found to be carrying nearly $100,000 in cash. His two-month interrogation produced written and tape-recorded confessions that helped send him to an Israeli prison for 4 1/2 years.

Lawyers for both Salah and Ashqar said they were only involved in charitable work.

Prosecutors used Salah's confession extensively in the trial, but his lawyers said he was tortured into confessing.

"I'm not sure Salah did anything wrong before he was incarcerated by the Israelis, and I'm quite sure he did nothing wrong after," Piers said.

The lone guilty finding against Salah related to a written response in which he denied being a Hamas member that was made in a civil suit won by the family of David Boim, a 17-year-old American killed in Israel in 1996. Piers said he expected the $156 million judgment in that case to be overturned on appeal.

The trial saw an unprecedented appearance by agents of Israel's Shin Bet intelligence service, who testified in disguise to a cleared courtroom. They reportedly said Salah was not tortured.

Another high-profile prosecution witness was former New York Times reporter Judith Miller, who toured Salah's prison in Israel and saw part of his interrogation -- later writing a front-page article relating to it.