Associated Press Writer
DALLAS (AP) — Two founding members of what was once the nation's largest Muslim charity were each sentenced to 65 years in prison Wednesday for funneling millions of dollars to the Palestinian militant group Hamas.
Shukri Abu Baker, 50, and Ghassan Elashi, 55, were among the five members of the Holy Land Foundation for Relief and Development sentenced to prison by U.S. District Judge Jorge Solis. The men and Holy Land were convicted in November on 108 charges. The convictions followed a mistrial in which the government in 2007 failed to sway jurors that the now-defunct charity, based in the Dallas suburb of Richardson, was in fact aiding Hamas.
The two Holy Land leaders were convicted on charges ranging from supporting a terrorist organization to money laundering and tax fraud. The group wasn't accused of violence but of bankrolling Hamas-controlled schools and social welfare programs.
Mufid Abdulqader, 49, was sentenced to 20 years on three conspiracy counts. Mohammad El-Mezain, 55, got 15 years for one count of conspiracy. Abdulrahman Odeh received 15 years for three conspiracy counts.
A judgment of $12.4 million was assessed against four of the defendants because they were convicted of money laundering.
"These sentences should serve as a strong warning to anyone who knowingly provides financial support to terrorists under the guise of humanitarian relief," said David Kris, assistant attorney general for national security, in a prepared statement.
Hamas was designated a terrorist organization by the U.S. in 1995, making it illegal to offer the group support. Hamas has taken credit for hundreds of suicide bombings targeting Israeli civilians.
As they stood before Solis, the defendants said they only fed the needy and gave much-needed aid to a volatile region, reiterating themes they made in mounting their defenses. Sentenced separately throughout the day, the men were both emotional and defiant as they addressed the judge.
"We are five innocent men," Odeh said, adding that the group's function had been "providing charity to all mankind."
Abu Baker said he was involved in the charity "because I cared, not at the behest of Hamas." But he was cut off by Solis, who told him: "You didn't tell the whole story. Palestinians were in a desperate situation, but that doesn't justify supporting Hamas."
Abdulqader, who worked as an engineer for the City of Dallas, described himself as merely a volunteer fundraiser and singer for a Palestinian folk band that worked with the charity.
"I never imagined I'd be put in jail for taking people out of their jail of poverty and starvation," he said.
Solis agreed that Abdulqader did not have a leadership role in the organization, but he dismissed the notion that the defendant's actions were innocent.
"You weren't convicted of singing," the judge said. "You weren't convicted of freedom of expression. You were convicted of supporting Hamas."
The sentencing re-energized Holy Land's supporters, who believe the prosecution was a politically motivated product of former President George W. Bush's "war on terror" and a prime example of post-Sept. 11 anti-Islam fervor. Across the street from the courthouse, a handful of people held a banner that read "Feeding Children Is Not A Crime."
Abu Baker's daughter, 25-year-old Zaira Abu Baker, said outside the courtroom that the group was a legitimate charity.
"I've been with my dad 100 percent of the way," she said. "I saw the work he did. He devoted his life to helping needy children. But after 9/11, I guess, there's hysteria. They pick and choose people, and unfortunately it's us."
One of the individuals who helped the government expose the charity, Mark Briskman, regional director of the Anti-Defamation League, provided The Associated Press with a written statement in which he praised Solis as a "no-nonsense judge" who "clearly gets it."
Abdulqader's attorney, Marlo Cadeddu, said after the sentencing that she believes the convictions could be overturned on appeal.
"You have to think long-term," she said. "We are appealing, we have some good issues, and we are focusing our energies on that now."
Copyright 2009 The Associated Press.