Federal Prosecutors Wrap Up Case Against Alleged Hamas Fundraisers

Federal prosecutors wrapped up their racketeering case against two alleged Hamas militants Monday, saying the men furnished funds and fresh recruits to spread "death, destruction, fear and terror."

Former Chicago grocer Muhammad Salah and co-defendant Abdelhaleem Ashqar were "important players" in the Hamas terrorist network, Assistant U.S. Attorney Joseph M. Ferguson told jurors. The closing arguments capped a three-month trial with witnesses including a torture expert and Israeli agents.

"The Hamas organization engaged in a purposeful and strategic campaign to spread death, destruction, fear and terror in pursuit of its overall objective to remove the State of Israel from the map," Ferguson said.

Salah, 53, and Ashqar, 48, a former assistant professor of business at Washington's Howard University, are charged with participating in a racketeering scheme that provided money and men to the Hamas organization in the early 1990s.

Both men deny that they are Hamas members and say they just sought to help poverty-stricken Palestinians suffering under the Israeli army's occupation of the West Bank and Gaza.

Salah's attorneys say he was tortured into making incriminating statements after his January 1993 arrest in Israel, where prosecutors say he went to supply money to underground Hamas fighters.

They say Salah was put in a freezing cell, denied a mattress or a blanket, hooded and forced to sit handcuffed in a tiny chair.

The government's initial witnesses, two agents of Israel's Shin Bet security service who questioned Salah, denied that he was mistreated.

Ferguson noted American diplomats and a reporter didn't see any signs he was tortured and said agents were not interested in beating a phony confession out of Salah but urgently wanted accurate information from him.

"These are not local coppers — they work for an intelligence operation that seeks accurate information to stop the next attack," he said.

Ferguson mentioned Ashqar only briefly, saying that when he came to the United States from Gaza in 1989 he put Salah's address and phone number as his own on a Social Security form. Ferguson said that was because the two men were brought together by Mousa Abu Marzook — an alleged Hamas leader who also is charged in the case but is living in Syria as a fugitive.

Salah's chief defense counsel, Michael E. Deutsch, is scheduled to deliver his closing argument Tuesday afternoon after Ferguson finishes. Ashqar attorney William Moffitt is to address the jury Wednesday morning.