Hamas Fundraiser Hearing Closed to Press

A federal judge agreed Friday to close a detention hearing for a man described as a high-ranking Hamas (search) operative, saying it would be difficult to keep the information in the hearing secret as required for a related grand jury proceeding.

U.S. Magistrate Judge Paul W. Grimm (search) said the need to protect the secrecy of federal grand jury proceedings in Chicago was the "overriding" factor in his decision to reject requests from two newspapers to conduct the detention hearing in open court.

Federal authorities have issued a material-witness warrant for Selim Elbarasse (search) to appear before a federal grand jury that is probing the financing of the Palestinian extremist group Hamas.

The judge said it would be difficult to hold a detention hearing without risking disclosure of information integral to the grand jury's investigation.

"We have the difficult overlap of hearings that traditionally have been open with proceedings that historically have never been open," Grimm said Friday, ruling on requests by The (Baltimore) Sun and The Washington Post to open the detention proceedings. "Trying to make the two fit is trying to put a square peg in a round hole."

Assistant U.S. Attorney Harvey Eisenberg argued that the integrity of the grand jury process trumps the public's "right to know."

Sun editor Timothy Franklin said the newspaper may appeal Grimm's decision, but meanwhile the newspaper will formally request the outcome of the proceeding be revealed in open court.

The detention hearing could be held as early as Monday, authorities said.

"If government is going to deprive someone, who hasn't even been indicted, of their liberty ... it seems like it should be done in a way the public can monitor how that's being exercised," Mary Craig, a lawyer representing The Sun, said in court.

Elbarasse, an accountant from Annandale, Va., was arrested a week ago after officers pulled over his sport utility vehicle near the Chesapeake Bay Bridge. Police said his wife was using a video camera to tape the bridge's structure.

Neither Elbarasse nor his wife were charged with any wrongdoing on the bridge, but Maryland authorities held him in custody after discovering that a material-witness warrant had been issued for him the same day in Chicago.

Elbarasse has been held for the past week at a maximum-security prison in Baltimore and was led into Friday's hearing in handcuffs. He remained silent while his federal public defender told Grimm he was not taking a position on whether the detention hearing should be public.

Court documents allege Elbarasse and defendant Mousa Mohammed Abu Marzook — considered one of the highest-ranking Hamas leaders internationally — shared a Virginia bank account that was used to launder hundreds of thousands of dollars for the Palestinian extremist group. Hamas has carried out suicide bombings and other attacks in Israel.

The U.S. attorney's office in Chicago wants to question Elbarasse, who was described in Marzook's indictment as an unindicted coconspirator.

Elbarasse's attorney, Stanley L. Cohen, said before Friday's hearing that he would not seek to block federal authorities' plans to move his client to Chicago, but he plans to challenge the material witness warrant in U.S. District Court there.