FORT WORTH, Texas — A 14-year-long investigation, which sent FBI agents around the world, wiretapping phones and hiding in surveillance vans, is scheduled to come to a head on Monday in Dallas when the Holy Land Foundation for Relief and Development goes on trial, accused of helping to fund terrorism while simultaneously doling out charity assistance to sick children and needy schools.
The founders and top officers of the Richardson, Texas-based Islamic charity, once the largest of its kind in the United States, are accused of being the financial and social-service arm of Hamas. Supporting Hamas is against federal law because the United States has declared it a terrorist group.
Holy Land Foundation officials and their supporters contend that they were raising money to help Palestinian families and orphans. From the outset, Islamic leaders decried the Holy Land prosecution as an anti-Muslim witch hunt promoted by the pro-Israel lobby in the United States.
Jury selection is scheduled to begin Monday, and the trial is expected to take about five months.
The case has generated headlines worldwide. Some Muslims see it as an attempt by some U.S. prosecutors and politicians to fan fears about the threat of terrorism posed by Muslim and Islamic groups.
Federal prosecutors acknowledge it will not be an easy trail to follow as they try to prove that the foundation hurt people instead of helping them.
"This case presents unusual facts and is unlikely to be within the common experience or knowledge of an average juror," prosecutors said in a brief filed with the court in May.
Defense lawyers countered by saying that the government's case is hard to understand only because it's based primarily on hearsay evidence. And they took issue with what they said were the prosecution's plans to introduce statements from people who are not expected to show up in court.
If that happens, the defense lawyers said in their brief, it would violate their clients' "Sixth Amendment right to confront the witnesses against them."
The case has been a cause celebre for American Muslims since federal agents first staged a raid a week before Sept. 11. A federal task force raided the Infocom Internet services company, which was associated with and across the street from the Holy Land Foundation in Richardson. Two months later, the government froze the charity's assets, totaling millions of dollars.
Contributions to Muslim charities nationwide dropped sharply in the wake of the raid.
The government says it is simply working to cut off the funding sources for Hamas militants and their suicide bombers. In prior court appearances tied to the Holy Land Foundation, prosecutors have argued that people contributing to the foundation should have known they were helping Hamas terrorists.
Muslim leaders say federal authorities are playing on people's fears and prejudices, which they call "Islamophobia."
"The Muslim community is watching this very closely," said Parvez Ahmed, national board chairman of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, based in Washington.
Local and national Muslim organizations have recently formed a coalition, Hungry for Justice, which plans to blog about the trial daily, and representatives of the Muslim community will be in the courtroom each day, Ahmed said.
He said all they want is a fair trial and to ensure that the "American Muslim community is not intimidated into silence."
Mark Briskman, regional director of the Anti-Defamation League, declined to say whether representatives of the Jewish community would also be in the courtroom to monitor the proceedings.
Briskman rejected the defense's claims that the case was the result of the American government strongly favoring Israel over Palestinians in the Middle East. "It is, pure and simple, a criminal trial. ... It has nothing to do with politics," he said.
The trial on the 15th floor of the Earl Cabell Federal Building in downtown Dallas will cap more than a decade of investigations in which FBI agents, using high-tech surveillance technology, followed alleged Hamas fundraisers throughout this country, into the war-ravaged Middle East, and into more exotic pockets of Great Britain, Germany and Holland.
Jurors will hear such terms as "The Movement," the "Muslim Brotherhood," "The Fund" and the "Philadelphia Conference," and they will be told they must learn the intricacies of an "international closed community" that sends suicide bombers into crowds of innocents, including children.
Several Holy Land Foundation officials, in two earlier trials, were found guilty of doing business with known terrorists. But the proceedings beginning on Monday focus on the heart of the government's voluminous case - that the foundation was a major funding tool for Hamas' "objective of destroying the state of Israel and replacing it with an Islamic state" in Israel, the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.
Acknowledging that the Holy Land Foundation did not directly carry out terrorist attacks, prosecutors say that the charity acted as the "social wing" of Hamas, "much like a social welfare agency," providing money and assistance to such places as schools, clinics and worship centers "to win the hearts and minds of the Palestinian population and solidify loyalty to Hamas."
"In order for Hamas to achieve its ultimate ... goal of annihilating Israel, it had to win the broad support of the Palestinian population. The (foundation) set out to do just that," the government's brief said.
It also said federal agents have videos of foundation-assisted school and camp activities in the Middle East "during which the children act out violent acts in support of Hamas and praise Hamas suicide bombers."
In a 2003 interview with the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, Shukri Abu Baker, president of the Holy Land Foundation and a defendant in the upcoming trial, denied the government's claims that he, and the charity he ran, were conduits for terrorism.
"I have no passion for violence," Abu Baker said. "I have no passion for blood."
Abu Baker's former lawyer, Tim Evans of Fort Worth, said he thinks the Holy Land Foundation defendants stand a good chance of being acquitted if the jury bases their decision on facts, rather than on unfounded fears that Muslim Americans, as a sector of society, are somehow responsible for the peril of Sept. 11.
"I think it's a good thing that the trial might last five months, because this is an extremely complicated matter," Evans said.
"And if the Holy Land Foundation is able to show the other side of this issue, I believe they could and should prevail in this case. ... I believe they will be able to show they were raising money for people who were literally starving and for the orphans with no families in Palestine."