“Security” operations target Muslim charities

Empowering Weak & Oppressed

Sami Haider

Ramadan 11, 1430 2009-09-01

News & Analysis

by Sami Haider (News & Analysis, Crescent International Vol. 38, No. 7, Ramadan, 1430)

Muslims in North America are a special target of the US war on Islam. Hatred of the ‘other’ is as American as apple pie that targets people not because they have done anything wrong or illegal but because of who they are. In the past —the Second World War, for instance —Americans, and indeed Canadians, of Japanese and Italian origins were targeted because the US and Canada were at war with Germany and Italy. Today, Muslims have become the subject of this hatred because the US, Canada and many European countries are waging wars in Muslim lands.

In addition to a raft of laws — the Patriot Act (US), Bill C-36 (Canada) et al — passed in the wake of 9/11 that specifically target Muslims and their institutions, Muslim charities have been particularly hard hit. The generic allegation hurled at Muslims accusing them of supporting “terrorism” or “terrorist groups” has sent a chill in the Muslim community. While loudly proclaiming that there is freedom of religion in the West, such freedom is not extended to Muslims who are severely constrained in practicing even the basic tenets of their faith. It is not uncommon to see FBI agents with clearly marked cars standing outside masjids in the US with the unmistakable message to intimidate worshippers from doing nothing more than adhering to their basic religious practice of praying.

Since the Department of Homeland Security — created in the wake of 9/11 — and Justice Department have been given vast new powers by the US Congress for intrusive searches, hundreds of Muslim charities have been targeted. Even without such targeting, many charities have suffered because Muslims feel so intimidated that they have stopped giving to charities lest they be targeted personally. Last month there was a welcome break in this long string of unjust practices against Muslim charities when a judge in Toledo, Ohio, ruled that the federal government had wrongly frozen the assets of a Muslim charity, KindHearts for Charitable Humanitarian Development, three years ago without giving the organization any warning. District Judge James Carr ruled on August 18 that the government had an obligation to tell an organization why it was freezing its assets and to give it a chance to respond. The US government had frozen its assets because it “suspected” the charity of having ties with Hamas, the Islamic group in Palestine that has been designated a “terrorist” organization by the US.
KindHearts officials have denied being connected to any terrorist group ever since federal agents sealed the charity’s office in 2006. Treasury department officials said KindHearts was connected with the Hamas-affiliated Holy Land Foundation and al-Qaida-affiliated Global Relief Foundation. Holy Land Foundation’s assets were frozen in 2001. Following a mistrial in November 2007, the Holy Land Foundation was finally convicted last year with its directors handed down long prison sentences. These are being appealed.

KindHearts leaders insist theirs is a nonprofit charitable organization administering humanitarian aid to the world’s poor. It estimated the group provided $5 million to $6 million annually in charitable assistance. The government alleged KindHearts officials coordinated with Hamas leaders and made contributions to Hamas-affiliated organizations. US Justice Department attorney Jonathan Zimmerman said during a hearing last May that the government did not need to show probable cause or seek a warrant to freeze assets, especially in cases when the assets were spread worldwide. “We are dealing with money exported overseas,” Zimmerman said. He also said that even though KindHearts’ funds were frozen, they remained in the charity’s name and in the same accounts.

This is of little help to charities that have to defend themselves against scandalous allegations. With their assets frozen, funds have to be secured from other sources to mount a proper defense in court. The government has no shortage of funds; indeed, the purpose of the entire exercise appears to be to cripple Muslims financially. Any charities helping the oppressed people in Palestine in any way, feeding hungry children or assisting with their education or supporting widows, are especially targeted. At the same time, not only the US government but dozens of ‘charitable’ organizations send billions of dollars to Israel each year to continue the brutal occupation of Palestine and its people. The targeting of Muslim charities is a campaign that has been instigated by the Zionists in the US in conjunction with fellow travelers in occupied Palestine.

This is most clearly illustrated in the case of the Holy Land Foundation, a Dallas-based charity that was targeted for more than 15 years, long before the events of 9/11. In November 2008, the Muslim charity and five of its former directors were found “guilty” of illegally funneling more than $12 million to Hamas. A total of 108 charges were laid and although a year before this conviction, a jury had delivered a mistrial, the government persisted, no doubt spurred by its hatred of Hamas and egged on by the Zionist cabal. The jury also said Holy Land Foundation should forfeit $12.4 million because of several money-laundering convictions in the case.

“It’s a sad day,” said Mohammed Wafa Yaish, Holy Land’s former accountant and a defense witness. “It looks like helping the needy Palestinians is a crime these days.”

Defense attorneys argued that the foundation was a legitimate charity that helped distressed Palestinians under Israeli occupation. They accused the government of bending to Israeli pressure and of relying on evidence predating the 1995 designation of Hamas as a “terrorist” organization. Plans for appeal are underway. There is widespread feeling among Muslims in the US and indeed among fair-minded non-Muslim Americans that this was a political trial with the specific purpose of shutting down any help to the oppressed Palestinians. The first trial had ended in a hung jury in October 2007. William Neal, a juror in the case, told the media that the government’s evidence “was pieced together over the course of a decade — a phone call this year, a message another year”. Instead of trying to prove that the defendants knew they were supporting terrorists, Neal said, prosecutors “danced around the wire transfers by showing us videos of little kids in bomb belts and people singing about Hamas, things that didn’t directly relate to the case.”

Critics of the government noted that it took millions of taxpayer dollars, 15 years of investigation and two long trials to get guilty verdicts. “Retrials tend to favor the prosecution,” said Tom Melsheimer, a former federal prosecutor in Dallas now in private practice. “The government can figure out what worked and what didn’t and streamline their presentation of the evidence. The defense, on the other hand, has already shown their cards. “To spend millions of dollars in time and expenses to prosecute people who were of no real threat to anyone, under the banner of a terrorism case, is a waste of precious federal resources,” he said.

The five defendants, directors of the charity — Ghassan Elashi, Shukri Abu-Baker, Mufid Abdulqader, Abdulrah-man Odeh and Mohammad El-Mezain — were not accused in the 2004 indictment of directly financing suicide bombings or terrorist violence. Instead, they were accused of illegally contributing to Hamas after the US designated it a terrorist group, money laundering and tax fraud. The defendants argued that the Holy Land Foundation, once the largest Muslim charity in the US, was engaged in legitimate humanitarian aid for community welfare programs and Palestinian orphans.

After the October 2007 mistrial that had laid 197 charges against the defendants none of which was upheld, critics said the government had offered a weak, complicated case and had failed to recognize that juries were not as quick to convict Muslim defendants accused of supporting terrorism as they had once been. Prosecutors spent more time in the second trial explaining the complexities of the case and painting a clearer picture of the money trail. They also dropped many of the original charges.

Nancy Hollander, a lawyer from Albuquerque who represented Abu-Baker, said the defendants appeal is based on a number of issues, including the anonymous testimony of an expert, which she said was a first. “Our clients were not even allowed to review their own statements because they were classified — statements that they made over the course of many years that the government wiretapped,” Ms. Hollander said. “They were not allowed to go back and review them. There were statements from alleged co-conspirators that included handwritten notes. Nobody knew who wrote them; nobody knew when they were written. There are a plethora of issues.”

According to freedomtogive.com, a Website that calls itself the voice of the defendants’ relatives and friends, the foundation “simply provided food, clothes, shelter, medical supplies and education to the suffering people in Palestine and other countries.” The government conceded that the Holy Land Foundation only provided assistance to real charitable organizations and persons. But the prosecution then went on to argue that in so doing, the charity “freed” Hamas from its burden to fund charitable activities in Palestine, thus having more resources to direct toward terrorist activities.

What is indicative of the atmosphere of Islamophobia in the US is the fact that the Justice Department named 306 individuals and organizations as un-indicted co-conspirators in the Holy Land case. The exhaustive list includes The Islamic Society of North America, the North American Islamic Trust and the Council on American-Islamic Relations.

Since 2002, an estimated 500 cases have been brought against Muslims in America. Half of these have been dismissed as being without merit. The rest have all resulted in either acquittals or negotiated pleas on minor charges which are unrelated to the original indictment. Of the 500 cases, it is estimated that some 30 of them may have had some reasonable foundation in law. In no other area of prosecution has theDepartment of Justice produced such an extraordinarily high percentage of dismissed cases and cases resulting in guilty pleas on unrelated charges.

The fundamental question raised by such prosecutions is whether Muslims in the US can practice their religion free from coercion. Zakat is one of the fundamental pillars of Islam. The Qur’an enjoins Muslims not only to give Zakat but also other donations, more particularly to give them in secret so that the recipient is not exposed to others as having received charity. Muslims are being prevented from giving charity because a paranoid government instigated by the Zionists is leading the charge against Muslims. In his Cairo speech on June 4, US President Barack Obama had said Muslims in the US were free to give their zakat wherever they liked and that he would defend Muslim charities. Now is the time for Obama to show whether he really means what he said.

Chances are, this will turn out to be another of his rhetorical flights of fancy meant to sooth anger in the Muslim world. The reality for Muslims is very different in America. They are treated as second class citizens. In the war on Islam, Muslims living in the West are the first victims.

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