If Salsabil El-Mezain wants to see her father, she must travel from San Diego to a prison in Terre Haute, Indiana. It is a visit without hugs and kisses conducted through a telephone behind a window. It has been two years and nine months since he has been taken away, but he doesn’t want them to give up hope.
El-Mezain’s father is one among hundrends of American Muslims who have been involved in civil liberties cases post-9/11. Over the past 10 years, the community has been faced with profiling under the pretense of fighting terrorism. Muslim charities have been particularly targeted by these practices and the crackdown has caused much anxiety within the community.
The Holy Land Foundation for Relief and Development (HLF) was once one of the largest Islamic charities in the United States. It was closed by executive order, and without due process, on December 4, 2001, for allegedly supporting the Palestinian group Hamas. HLF gave money to charity organizations, known as zakat committees, around the Middle East, including the Palestinian territories. According to the Department of Justice, "HLF intentionally hid its financial support for Hamas behind the guise of charitable donations."
On September 1, in a packed New Orleans courtroom, oral arguments were made in the Holy Land Foundation appeal. An opinion by the three presiding judges will take anywhere from three to six months (and could even take up to a year).
Until then, the five defendants, including El-Mezain’s father Mohammad, are waiting behind bars.
In 2004 indictments were issued against five members of the organization. Three years later, the first trial ended in a mistrial. However, in the second trial, the prosecution called in new witnesses and the jury found all five defendants guilty.
In 2009, a federal judge in Dallas handed down sentences of 15 to 65 years for these five men. HLF was found guilty on all counts for transferring over $12 million to Hamas.
Now, in New Orleans, attorneys are working to reverse the convictions. The focus in their argument is the government’s use of secret witnesses and evidence based on hearsay. “Evidence has been used that is not related to the case at all,” says El-Mezain. “It’s nerve-wrecking to see my father and other defendants listening to the prosecutor trying to convince the jury with the evidence they had.”
She has faith that appeal will bring her father back home. Family, friends, and the community have helped her family through the tough times. The Muslim Legal Fund of America has taken on the case as well.
The 10-year case against HLF raises questions about civil rights facing the American Muslim community. Violations of due process, the use of informants, and intimidation have been used in the wake of September 11 against American Muslims. The story of the Holy Land Foundation is a stark message to other Islamic charities in the U.S. They too may be charged with supporting terrorists by giving to local charities. The crackdown will only alienate American Muslims and stir distrust. If an appeal is granted and HLF is retried for a third time, what can we expect from the American justice system? Ten years later, the struggle for civil rights is just as pressing as it was in the immediate wake of 9/11.
Photo Credit: steakpinball