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Holy Land retrial ends in sweeping guilty verdicts

After 15 years and two trials, the government has finally brought down the Holy Land Foundation for Relief and Development, once the largest Muslim charity in the U.S.

The charity and five of its former leaders were convicted Monday on some 108 charges of funneling millions of dollars to the Palestinian militant group Hamas.

"United States citizens have spoken in this case, and said with a resounding verdict of guilty that we will not tolerate those who choose to finance terrorism," U.S. Attorney Richard Roper said.

Holy Land became the government's signature victory in the tough-to-convict pursuit of terrorism financing cases. Lengthy prison sentences may await Holy Land's five convicted leaders, and some could be locked away for life.

Counting the collapse of last year's original Holy Land trial, the government has stumbled in terrorism-financing cases. Two other high-profile trials in Chicago and Florida ended without convictions on the major counts.

Holy Land has been suspected since the 1990s of bankrolling social programs run by Hamas, which the U.S. designated a terrorist organization in 1995. Prosecutors accused Holy Land of routing more than $12 million overseas to help Hamas spread its ideology and boost its ranks.

Before being taken into federal custody, the five men waved and flashed peace signs to sobbing family members. Their sentencing date has not been set.

The convictions range from supporting a terrorist organization to money laundering, which carry sentences up to 15 or 20 years on each count.

Defense attorneys say they will appeal. The two-month-long trial was a do-over from last year, when a judge declared a mistrial after jurors deadlocked on most counts following 19 days of deliberations.

On Monday, the jury returned its verdict on day eight of deliberations.

"Twelve good American citizens in the first trial didn't convict anyone of anything," said Linda Moron, attorney for former Holy Land chairman Ghana Leash. "And 12 good American citizens in the second trial convicted everyone of everything. If you can make sense of that ... explain it to me."

Ghassan Elashi, Holy Land's former chairman, and Shukri Abu-Baker, Holy Land's chief executive, were convicted of a combined 69 counts, including supporting a specially designated terrorist, money laundering and tax fraud.

Mufid Abdulqader and Abdulrahman Odeh were convicted of three counts of conspiracy, and Mohammed El-Mezain was convicted of one count of conspiracy to support a terrorist organization.

Holy Land itself was convicted of all 32 counts. It will also be required to forfeit about $12.4 million to the government.

For federal prosecutors, it was a long-sought victory.

President George W. Bush personally announced the freezing of Holy Land's assets in 2001, calling the action "another step in the war on terrorism." Evidence dated far back as 1992, when the FBI bugged a hotel meeting in Philadelphia where defendants spoke using the code word "Samah" - "Hamas" spelled backward.

"This is definitely the most notable victory that the government has had in this type of case," said Matthew Orwig, former U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of Texas.

Holy Land wasn't accused of violence. Rather, the government said the charity, based in Richardson, Texas, financed schools, hospitals and social welfare programs controlled by Hamas in areas ravaged by the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Holy Land supporters told a different story. They accused the government of politicizing the case as part of its war on terrorism, while attorneys for the foundation said Holy Land's mission was philanthropy and providing aid to the Middle East.

They reminded jurors that none of the charity's benefactors were designated by the U.S. as terrorist fronts, and that Holy Land also donated to causes elsewhere, including helping victims of the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995.

Noor Elashi, Ghassan Elashi's daughter, said she was proud of her father and said he was "paying the price" for saving lives.

"My dad was persecuted for his political beliefs. It's as pure and simple as that," she said.


Associated Press writers Schuyler Dixon and Jamie Stengle in Dallas contributed to this report.

Paul J. Weber, AP Writer © 2008 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.
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