by Ahmet Aslan (News & Analysis, Crescent International Vol. 39, No. 8, Shawwal, 1431)
A Palestinian-American, Ghassan Elashi was one of the founders and then chairman of the Holy Land Foundation for Relief and Development (HLF)
Since the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights as the standard by which to judge countries, the West has targeted “undeveloped”, especially Muslim countries, for their poor human rights record. They are accused of resorting to oppression that is allegedly inbuilt into the teachings of Islam. There is no denying that injustice has existed in Muslim lands throughout history and continues to this today. However, contrary to what the West claims, it is not Islam that approves of injustice. Rather it is the unbridled greed and arrogance of rulers and the elites that are the root cause of evil. The arrogance and greed of Western rulers that are constantly doing the bidding of multinational corporations is much greater.
This has resulted in intense oppression of groups and individuals that are deemed as obstacles in their way. The media has served as a willing tool to cover up Western-perpetrated injustices and make it appear as if only Muslims are human rights abusers. However, despite “skilled” manipulation, there are many examples that help us realize how the West perpetrates flagrant violations of human rights in their own lands. The case of Ghassan Elashi and his colleagues illustrates this point well.
A Palestinian-American, Ghassan Elashi was one of the founders and then chairman of the Holy Land Foundation for Relief and Development (HLF). He was born in Gaza City in 1953 and lived there until age 14. He then moved to Cairo with his family. He lived in Saudi Arabia and London for a few years before migrating to the US in 1978.
Elashi’s arrival in the US coincided with the period when Zionist atrocities against the Palestinians escalated alarmingly. In the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps in Beirut, then Israeli Defense Minister Ariel Sharon perpetrated a massacre of more than 3,500 Palestinians in September 1982 following Israel’s invasion of Lebanon three months earlier. Many Palestinians were also killed during the first intifada that started in 1987. Deeply shocked with these brutalities perpetrated against his fellow countrymen, Elashi, along with some friends, set up the Holy Land Foundation (HLF). This was to provide humanitarian relief for inhabitants of the occupied Palestinian land as well as other needy people regardless of their religion.
Initially, HLF was based in California under the name, Occupied Land Fund in 1989. The charity’s headquarters were then moved to Richard-son, Texas in 1992 and the name was changed to the Holy Land Foundation. Before its closure, the HLF was the largest Muslim charity in the US with an annual budget of $14 million.
They operated in occupied Palestine and the refugee camps in Lebanon and Jordan. The HLF also provided aid to countries including Bosnia, Albania, Kosovo, Chechnya, Turkey and the US in the aftermath of the Iowa floods, Texas tornadoes and the Oklahoma City Bombing.
Soon after the launch of aid operations, Israeli authorities began to monitor the HLF. It has been the ultimate Zionist goal to exterminate the Palestinian population, and an independent charity that was run by Palestinians and refused to “cooperate” with Israeli authorities was considered a serious threat by Israeli security services; hence they conspired against the HLF. The chain of incidents began in January 1993, when Muhammad Salah, a Palestinian American, was arrested by the Zionist army and transferred to Shin Bet’s Ramallah interrogation facility wherein he was subjected to constant torture for 54 days. During the interrogation Shin Bet forced Salah to sign a statement written in Hebrew. It contained various allegations against the HLF but it was obvious Salah was unaware of these since he did not understand Hebrew.
Shin Bet passed the information to the FBI and pressured them through the foreign ministry to “scrutinize” the activities of the HLF. The FBI geared up for a swift intelligence investigation on HLF members. Federal agents bugged a meeting that took place in a hotel conference room in Philadelphia where some Arab-American activists as well as members of the HLF were gathered. After the meeting, the FBI alleged that the meeting aimed to criticize the 1993 Oslo Accord and praise Hamas. Ironically Hamas had not been designated a terrorist organization by the US until then (it was placed on the list in 1995). Following this allegation, the HLF became the target of US intelligence services as well as the media.
The pro-Zionist US media launched a vicious defamation campaign against the HLF and its members, especially Ghassan Elashi. Throughout the campaign, the media often cited US and Israeli intelligence services to make allegations against the charity. The FBI placed members of the charity under close surveillance, wiretapping their conversations and bugging their offices.
An eight-year-long lynching campaign entered a new phase in December 2001,right after the 9/11 attacks, when President George W. Bush announced at a press conference that the HLF will be shut down for having links to Hamas. Neither Bush nor the FBI provided any evidence to back up such allegation. With the HLF’s closure, media interest subsided somewhat. However, after three years of dormancy the case erupted dramatically when in July 2004 FBI agents raided the homes of five ex-members of the charity: Ghassan Elashi (HLF chairman), Shukri Abu-Baker (HLF CEO), Abdulrahman Odeh (New Jersey Office Director), Mohammad El-Mezain (California Office Director) and Mufid Abdulqader (HLF volunteer). The FBI arrested them on a 42-count indictment, charging them with conspiracy, money laundering, and working for a designated “terrorist” organization.
The HLF trial began in July 2007 and two months later, in October 2007 the judge declared a mistrial. The jury was deadlocked on the 197 counts against the five defendants, returning zero guilty verdicts.
In another significant development that took place in December 2007, a federal court of appeals reversed the ruling in another case against the HLF: In May 2000 an opportunistic Jewish-American couple had sued the HLF, for the death of their 17-year-old son in 1996, in the West Bank. Later, a federal court awarded the Boim family $52 million, and a US magistrate judge tripled the amount, setting the damages at $156 million. Lawyers for the HLF appealed the decision and a federal court of appeals struck down the earlier decision and found no evidence linking the charity to Hamas.
However, US Zionist lobbies were determined to punish HLF and deny justice to its members. Prosecutors appealed the decision and made major changes in the indictment. The new strategy envisaged simplifying the case by dropping charges against three defendants focusing instead only on Ghassan Elashi and Shukri Abu-Baker.
Retrial began in September 2008 and two months later the jury delivered guilty verdicts on all counts. Finally, in May 2009 the court sentenced the defendants to between 15 to 65 years imprisonment. Elashi received the highest sentence: 65 years.
Elashi, however, remained unapologetic about HLF deeds and declared openly: “I do not apologize for feeding orphans and needy families. I know what the government’s goal was about all this: it’s just to make an example of me, but they failed because I felt a love from the community that I couldn’t imagine.”
There were many discrepancies in the arguments of the prosecution that showed the case was politically motivated. US officials wanted to turn the case into an example to scare off American-Muslim activists and cease their support for the Palestinians.
During the trials, prosecutors argued that the HLF gave money to Palestinian zakah (charity) committees that were allegedly under Hamas control. However, the committee is well known and has a long record of service. Even some non-Muslim US charities, such as American Red Cross and United States Agency for International Development have given it grants. Interestingly, not one of these groups was designated in the US Treasury Department’s lists of terrorist organizations.
During the trial, prosecutors called an Israeli intelligence agent to testify under a pseudonym. Instead of producing evidence in court, the Zionist agent passed personal judgment and claimed that he could “smell Hamas” indicating that HLF was a Hamas front. The prosecutors also manipulated and intimidated jurors by showing scenes of suicide bombings without establishing any connection to HLF.
Additionally, the prosecutors used HLF members’ family connections to Hamas members in establishing an “organic” connection between the two: Mousa Abu Marzook, Hamas’ political chief, happens to be married to a cousin of Ghassan Elashi, and Hamas’ political chief, Khaled Meshaal, is the brother of Mufid Abdulqader.
The case was full of discrepancies and was a textbook example of a political monkey trial. The case showed the world how the US witch-hunt against Muslims can turn so bizarre. In June 2009, George Galloway, the former British Member of Parliament and a tireless campaigner for Palestinian rights, pointed out the extent of injustice in the HLF case: “As I stand here in Dallas, I have to say it’s one of the most monstrous injustices in modern times in America.”
The injustices committed against Elashi and other HLF members have continued to multiply during the implementation of their sentences. Elashi and others were transferred from the Federal Correctional Institution in Seagoville to the Communications Management Unit (CMU) in Terre Haute, Indiana in April 2010. CMUs were designed to restrict inmates’ contact and communication with their familiy members and the outside world. Telephone calls of inmates are limited and monitored and they are not allowed to speak in their native language as CMU only allows communications in English.
CMUs have been condemned by human rights groups, such as the Center for Constitutional Rights, on the basis of lack of due process, overrepresentation of Muslim and political prisoners. The CMUs are thus dubbed as “Guantanamo of the US”. They also argued that CMUs have destructive effects on families of the inmates and regarded the conditions there as amounting to cruel and unusual punishment.
While the US and other Western countries continue to preach human rights in distant Muslim lands, Elashi’s tragic case remains a blatant reminder that oppression and injustice are to be found much closer to home.