Lawyers for former leaders of the Richardson, Texas-based Holy Land Foundation for Relief and Development, once the nation’s largest Muslim charity, are asking the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans to overturn their clients’ convictions and prison sentences. A three-judge panel didn’t immediately rule after hearing two hours of arguments from prosecutors and defense attorneys.
Defense lawyers claim the judge who presided over their 2008 retrial erred in allowing testimony about Hamas’ terrorist activities, protecting the identities of two Israeli witnesses and denying defendants’ access to many of their own secretly recorded statements.
“It was not a fair trial,” said defense attorney John Cline, who represents Ghassan Elashi. “The entire trial process was so riddled with errors that the process was not fair.”
Federal prosecutors argue U.S. District Judge Jorge Solis in Dallas didn’t abuse his discretion in deciding what evidence jurors could hear.
Justice Department attorney Joseph Palmer defended Solis’ decision to allow a government witness from the Israeli Security Agency to testify as an expert anonymously, using the pseudonym “Avi,” about Hamas’ control of West Bank social committees that were funded by Holy Land.
Jurors also heard anonymous testimony from an officer in the Israeli Defense Forces.
“There was a real threat to the safety of those witnesses should their identities have been disclosed,” Palmer said.
Cline, however, said the anonymous testimony deprived the defendants of their due process rights and prevented defense attorneys from fully challenging their credibility.
“They were phantoms to us,” he said. “Avi was a critical witness in this case, and his credibility was essential.”
Appeals Judge Carolyn Dineen King agreed Avi was a “powerful witness” but noted that other trial testimony covered some of the same ground.
Background on HLF at IPT, US v. Holy Land Foundation for Relief and Development, et al.