US terror trials shed heat, not light

The United States government’s spotty record in obtaining convictions of people charged with providing “material support” to terrorist organisations is adding new impetus to the efforts of prominent constitutional lawyers to seek substantial changes in the law. The latest failure in a terrorism-financing prosecution came late in 2007, when a Texas jury failed to render any guilty verdicts in the trial of the Holy Land Foundation (HLF), once the largest and most prominent charity dedicated to supporting Palestinian and other Muslim causes. Several HLF officials were charged with giving money to Hamas, the militant Palestinian organisation designated a terrorist group by the US in 1995. The trial ended with a mix of acquittals and deadlocks.

The Federal Bureau of Investigation started looking into HLF in 1993. In December 2001, the US Treasury Department seized and confiscated the charity’s assets and records, effectively putting the organisation out of business. Given that outcome, some legal scholars have questioned why the government pursued a criminal prosecution at all. The trial did not begin until mid-2007.

William Neal, a juror in the HLF 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.”Civil liberties groups say the HLF case was just the latest in a line of misguided prosecutions. One such group, OMB Watch, charges that the USA Patriot Act gives the government “largely unchecked power to designate any group as a terrorist organisation”. It says that “once a charitable organisation is so designated, all of its materials and property may be seized and its assets frozen. The charity is unable to see the government’s evidence and thus understand the basis for the charges. Since its assets are frozen, it lacks

resources to mount a defence. And it has only limited right of appeal to the courts. So the government can target a charity, seize its assets, shut it down, obtain indictments against its

leaders, but then delay a trial almost indefinitely.”

According to the Centre on Law and Security at the New York University School of Law, the United States government has a 29 per cent conviction rate in terrorism prosecutions overall, compared with 92 per cent for felonies generally.

In some cases, defendants are arguably convicted of terror-related offences in the court of public

opinion rather than in the courts. One example often cited by lawyers is the case of Dr. Rafil Dhafir, an Iraqi-born US citizen, who organised and raised money for a charity providing

humanitarian relief to children in Iraq. He was never charged in court with a terror-related offence; the word “terrorism” was not allowed to be used in his trial, although prominent politicians such as then-New York Governor George Pataki hailed his arrest as

a victory in the war on terror. The upstate New York oncologist was sentenced to 22 years in jail in 2005 for 59 felony charges, including violating US sanctions against Iraq. — IPS