Creating people's geographies
RELATED: See also story of Mohamed Shorbagi in the NYT, who had to plead guilty to giving money to a charity related to Hamas.
By Michael Conlon Thu Oct 19, 4:57 PM ET
CHICAGO (Reuters) – A Chicago-area grocer charged with funneling hundreds of thousands of dollars to Palestinians is a “smart, strategic Hamas terrorist” with blood on his hands, U.S. government prosecutors charged on Thursday.
But lawyers defending 53-year-old Muhammad Salah said he was a good-hearted man interested only in charity, trapped in an international game of politics and tortured by Israeli Shin Bet security agents.
The depictions of the slight, gray-bearded Salah came at the opening of what may be a four-month trial in federal court that will feature testimony from former New York Times reporter Judith Miller and an appearance by Israeli secret police agents, who are expected to testify in disguises.
Salah, who lives in Bridgeview, Illinois, near Chicago, is charged along with Abdelhaleem Ashqar, 48, of Alexandria, Virginia, with racketeering conspiracy for allegedly engaging in a 15-year scheme to illegally finance terrorist activities in Israel.
A federal grand jury indictment handed up in August 2004 said Salah, who became a U.S. citizen in 1979, was the point person for money transfers that went to Hamas. Ashqar was described by prosecutors as a behind-the-scenes operative who helped coordinate Hamas activities.
Since 1988 “they have supported and furthered Hamas from right here in the United States,” Carrie Hamilton, an assistant U.S. attorney, said in her opening statement.
The indictment alleged that they and other unnamed conspirators helped fund Hamas — which leads the Palestinian government, but which Israel, the United States and the European Union regard as a terrorist group — from 1988 to 2003.
In 1992, she said, Salah was sent to Israel to deliver $50,000 for military attacks. He was later asked to “take over the military wing of Hamas” and $1 million was transferred into his bank account, she said.
HAMAS TERRORIST OR SUPPORTER OF HUMANITARIAN EFFORTS?
“He was a smart, strategic Hamas terrorist,” just as guilty of the death and violence that ensued as if he had carried it out himself, she said.
Both Salah and Ashqar have said they do not belong to Hamas.
In January 1993, Salah was arrested in Israel, where he made a number of admissions in a tape-recorded confession and served 4 1/2 years in jail. Several years later, the United States declared Hamas a terrorist group and made it illegal for its citizens to contribute to it.
Michael Deutsch, Salah’s lawyer, told the jury that his client was born in a Palestinian refugee camp and his only motive was helping Hamas, which he called “a broad-based movement” with “hundreds of thousands of supporters,” with its humanitarian projects.
His confession, which will be played for the jury, came only after weeks of mistreatment and torture, Deutsch said, adding: “You don’t have to accept a case that’s based on torture.”
Hamilton said Miller would testify that she witnessed Salah being interrogated and that there was no evidence of coercion. Deutsch said what Miller saw, at the invitation of former Israeli Prime Minister Yitzak Rabin, was a staged “exhibition” designed to influence U.S. foreign policy against Hamas.
A week later, he said, she wrote a front page article that helped do that.
The Shin Bet security agents who will testify will not use their real names, Deutsch told the jury, and defense lawyers will only be able to quiz them in a limited way for security reasons.
The judge hearing the trial has ruled that the courtroom will be closed to the public and press when they do testify and it is expected they will wear disguises — as they did in an earlier appearance this year when lawyers debated whether they should be called as witnesses.