DALLAS – Five brothers whose computer company did business in the Middle East are scheduled to go on trial this week on charges that they made illegal shipments of computer equipment to countries that support terrorism and tried to cover up the deals.
The trial in federal district court in Dallas, however, will not include the most explosive charges in the original indictment — that the men funneled money to the terrorist group Hamas (search).
The men, all Palestinian-born brothers, are expected to stand trial on the Hamas-related charges this fall.
The case drew enough attention in the aftermath of the September 2001 terror attacks that Attorney General John Ashcroft took the unusual step of personally announcing the indictments.
The men — Ghassan Elashi, Bayan Elashi, Basman Elashi, Hazim Elashi and Ihsan Elashyi — ran a company called InfoCom Corp (search)., which sold computer equipment and hosted Web sites for groups in the Middle East. The company is also a defendant.
Prospective jurors have been called to Judge Sam A. Lindsay's courtroom Monday morning to fill out questionnaires, then will face questioning by lawyers for both sides on Tuesday — a process more often seen in capital-murder cases.
Opening arguments are expected Wednesday, and the trial on up to 25 criminal counts is expected to last two to three weeks.
Through one of their attorneys, the Elashi brothers declined to comment but have maintained their innocence. They have said they were singled out because they helped run a Texas-based charity that gave money to Palestinians, including, authorities say, the wives and children of suicide bombers.
Ghassan Elashi was chairman of the self-described Muslim charity, the Holy Land Foundation for Relief and Development. The organization was closed and its assets seized in December 2001 after the Treasury Department accused it of being a Hamas front.
Authorities raided InfoCom on Sept. 5, 2001 and later charged that the Elashis used the Richardson company to make illegal shipments of computers and computer parts to Syria and Libya, which the government has designated state sponsors of terrorism, from 1997 to 2000.
InfoCom lacked licenses to ship technology to Libya or Syria, and a shipment to Libya was routed through Malta to hide its final destination, prosecutors charged.
Tim Evans, lawyer for Ghassan Elashi, objected to a criminal trial on charges of shipping and export violations. He suggested that large companies accused of such violations merely pay a fine instead of facing criminal prosecution.
"Unfortunately, many members of our government have chosen to twist, spin and exaggerate facts to claim victories in what they describe as the war on terrorism," Evans said in a statement. "Attorney General John Ashcroft, himself, conducted the press release on this indictment, need I say more?"
James T. Jacks, the lead prosecutor for the U.S. Attorney's Office in Dallas, declined to comment. A spokeswoman for the Commerce Department said criminal charges were filed partly because of the Elashis' alleged ties to Hamas.
Jonathan Turley, a law professor at George Washington University, said export violations are usually handled as a civil case and that the Justice Department filed criminal charges to ensure a conviction even if a jury acquitted the Elashis on the charge of funneling money to Hamas.
To win on the export-violation charges, the Elashis' lawyers may have to prove they were unfairly singled out for prosecution — a difficult task — Turley said.
"This is a signature prosecution for the Ashcroft Justice Department," Turley said. "The case seems to be a continuation of a no-holds-barred prosecution against the Holy Land Foundation and anyone connected to the foundation."
Holy Land Foundation was located across the street from InfoCom in a rundown business park in suburban Richardson. The group appealed the government seizure of its assets to the U.S. Supreme Court, which rejected the case.
The government also shut down two other U.S.-based Muslim groups that it accused of funneling money to terrorists.
The original indictment against the Elashi brothers charged that they funneled more than $100,000 to Mousa Abu Marzook (search), an admitted Hamas member. Marzook had invested $250,000 in InfoCom in the early 1990s in exchange for 40 percent of the company's profits and to hide his assets, authorities charged.
The U.S. government had designated Marzook a terrorist in 1995, making transactions with him illegal.