DALLAS – Two founding members of what was once the nation's largest Muslim charity were each sentenced to 65 years in prison Wednesday for funneling millions of dollars to the Palestinian militant group Hamas.
Shukri Abu Baker, 50, and Ghassan Elashi, 55, were among the five members of the Holy Land Foundation for Relief and Development sentenced to prison Wednesday.
The men and Holy Land were convicted in November on 108 charges, following a mistrial in which the government in 2007 failed to sway jurors that the charity sent more than $12 million to Hamas.
Mufid Abdulqader, 49, was sentenced to 20 years on three conspiracy counts. Mohammad El-Mezain, 55, got 15 years for one count of conspiracy to support a terrorist organization. Abdulrahman Odeh got 15 years for three conspiracy counts.
The Holy Land leaders were convicted on charges ranging from supporting a terrorist organization to money laundering and tax fraud. The group wasn't accused of violence, but of bankrolling schools and social welfare programs the government says are controlled by Hamas. Holy Land itself was convicted of 32 counts.
It's illegal to offer Hamas support because it was designated a terrorist organization by the U.S. in 1995. The group has taken credit for hundreds of suicide bombings targeting Israeli civilians.
The defendants said they only fed the needy and gave much-needed aid to a volatile region, and they had a chance to address the court before sentencing.
"I did it because I cared, not at the behest of Hamas," Abu Baker said in a long address.
U.S. District Judge Jorge Solis cut off Abu Baker and told him: "You didn't tell the whole story. Palestinians were in a desperate situation, but that doesn't justify supporting Hamas."
Later, Abdulqader told the court that he was merely a volunteer fundraiser and a singer in a Palestinian folk band that worked with the charity.
"I never imagined I'd be put in jail for taking people out of their jail of poverty and starvation," he said.
But Solis, while agreeing Abdulquader's lesser role contributed to his lighter sentence, disagreed with what that role was. "You weren't convicted of freedom of expression," the judge said. "You were convicted of supporting Hamas."
Holy Land's supporters say the prosecution was a politically motivated product of Bush's "war on terror" and a prime example of post-Sept. 11, anti-Islam fervor. Across the street from the courthouse, a handful of people held a banner that read "Feeding Children Is Not A Crime."
Abu Baker's daughter, 25-year-old Zira Abu Baker, said outside the courtroom that the group was a legitimate charity.
"I've been with my dad 100 percent of the way," she said. "I saw the work he did. He devoted his life to helping needy children. But after 9/11, I guess, there's hysteria. They pick and choose people, and unfortunately it's us."
Defense attorneys also protested an Israel official allowed to testify anonymously that Hamas members were among the leaders of Holy Land's benefactors. The Israeli agent, who testified under the pseudonym "Avi," also appeared in the 2007 trial.