WASHINGTON – A major American Muslim charity and seven of its officers were charged Tuesday with providing millions of dollars in support to Hamas (search), a Palestinian terrorist organization blamed for dozens of homicide bomber attacks in Israel.
The 42-count indictment, returned by a federal grand jury in Dallas, alleges that the Holy Land Foundation for Relief and Development (search) provided more than $12.4 million to individuals and organizations linked to Hamas from 1995 to 2001. The U.S. government froze the charity's assets in December 2001.
The indictment names the foundation along with its president, Shukri Abu Baker (search); chairman, Ghassan Elashi; executive director, Haitham Maghawri; and four others. The charges include conspiracy, providing material support to a foreign terrorist organization, tax evasion and money laundering.
Five of the seven defendants were arrested while two of them, Maghawri and Akram Mishal, are not in the United States and are considered to be fugitives, the attorney general said.
"To those who exploit good hearts to secretly fund violence and murder, this prosecution sends a clear message: There is no distinction between those who carry out terrorist attacks and those who knowingly finance terrorist attacks," Attorney General John Ashcroft (search) said at a news conference to announce charges.
Noting that a number of Americans have been Hamas victims, Ashcroft said, "Today, a U.S.-based charity that claims to do good works is charged with funding the works of evil."
The attorney general said the foundation gave money to the families of Hamas terrorists killed and jailed by Israel.
"In this manner, the defendants effectively rewarded past, and encouraged future suicide bombings and terrorist activities on behalf of Hamas."
Tim Evans, Elashi's attorney, did not immediately return a telephone call seeking comment Tuesday.
On Monday, the foundation filed a complaint with the inspector general of the Justice Department and asked for an investigation because it claimed the FBI fabricated its case.
Holy Land, which claims to be the largest U.S. Muslim charity, has been shut down since about $4 million of its assets were frozen by the U.S. government in late 2001. Federal courts have repeatedly rejected Holy Land's appeals to get its assets unfrozen, concluding that the government has sufficient evidence linking the charity to terrorism.
The charity has insisted that its money went only for relief to refugees, orphans and disaster victims. In 2000, it raised about $13 million for what charity officials said were schools and social programs in Palestinian-controlled areas and other mainly Islamic nations.
The indictment charges that Holy Land provided financial aid to the militant group Hamas as far back as 1988.
John Boyd, a lawyer for the Holy Land Foundation, said he had not seen the indictment and could not comment in detail. However, he questioned the use of old transactions in the indictment.
"If these are related to transactions in '88 and '89, that is six years before Hamas committed its first terrorist acts and seven years before Hamas was declared a terrorist organization," Boyd said.
Israel banned Holy Land from operating within its borders in 1997 and said it funneled money to the families of homicide bombers. Israeli government officials hailed the U.S. move against the group.
Holy Land had close ties to a computer and Internet-hosting company in suburban Dallas that was raided a few days before the terror attacks in September 2001. Agents seized computer hard drives and boxes of documents from the offices of InfoCom Corp. — directly across the street from Holy Land's offices.