The five defendants in the Holy Land Foundation case were defiant Wednesday while being sentenced for their roles in funneling money to overseas terrorists, expressing disbelief that American law could criminalize the feeding of needy Palestinian people.
Three maintained their steadfast innocence.
The judge in the largest terrorism financing case in U.S. history disagreed, handing down sentences to two that will likely mean they'll spend the rest of their lives behind bars for financing the terrorist group Hamas. The others were given sentences ranging from 15 to 20 years.
"Your function in life was raising money to support Hamas," U.S. District Judge Jorge Solis told one of them in words that were repeated in some fashion as each defendant learned his fate.
"You stated it was to help people, but the motive was to support Hamas," the judge said. "You state that you are innocent, but the evidence shows the opposite."
If the federal judge, the FBI and prosecutors were expecting contriteness, they were sorely disappointed.
"We gave the essentials of life – oil, rice, flour," former Holy Land board chairman Ghassan Elashi said before receiving his 65-year sentence.
"The [Israeli] occupation was providing them with death and destruction. The Holy Land Foundation was to assist the Palestinians in their steadfastness against the brutal apartheid regime.
"I would like to declare my innocence of all the charges," he said.
Last fall, all five men were convicted on 108 charges that they funneled more than $12 million to the Palestinian group Hamas after the Clinton administration in 1995 declared it a terrorist group for sponsoring suicide bombings targeting Israelis.
The convictions were a major counterterrorism victory for the Justice Department, which has failed to get guilty verdicts on the most serious charges in other similar trials around the country.
"Today's sentences mark the culmination of many years of painstaking investigative and prosecutorial work at the federal, state and local levels," David Kris, assistant attorney general for national security, said in a prepared statement Wednesday. "These sentences should serve as a strong warning to anyone who knowingly provides financial support to terrorists under the guise of humanitarian relief."
Holy Land prosecutor Jim Jacks noted the defiant nature of the men's remarks while arguing for maximum penalties for the charity's former leadership.
"There's been no acknowledgment by any of these defendants regarding their connection to Hamas," Jacks said. "They haven't been deterred. Their entire sentencing presentation is they're being punished for providing charity. It's important for the court to impose a sentence that says this is not a case about punishing people for doing nice things."
The government acknowledged that the former Richardson organization, once the largest Muslim charity in the U.S., did provide aid to Palestinians. But the evidence showed that they sent money to Palestinian charity offices controlled by Hamas. U.S. law prohibits any aid, even humanitarian, going to any designated terrorist group.
Hamas, the evidence showed during trial, parlayed that aid into support for its violent agenda to destroy Israel. That included funneling aid to family members of suicide bombers, ensuring a steady stream of new suicide recruits, testimony showed.
Defense attorneys hoping for leniency fought an uphill battle with Solis on Wednesday, who repeatedly disputed arguments that the defendants broke no laws and did not support Hamas.
"You did support Hamas in violation of the law," Solis told Elashi. "If the Holy Land Foundation did have a face, it was the face of Hamas."
Nancy Hollander, attorney for former Holy Land CEO Shukri Abu Baker, tried to use the case of Ali Saleh Kahlah al-Marri to persuade to judge to go easy. Al-Marri pleaded guilty in April to one count of conspiracy to provide material support to al-Qaeda.
"This is a man who admits he came to the U.S. as a sleeper agent and the government believes 15 years is sufficient," Hollander said.
Solis retorted that "raising millions of dollars to fund terrorism, that's a different situation." He said that al-Marri is an example of someone who wanted to "commit 'an' act of terrorism, as bad as that is. This is support over years."
He sentenced Abu Baker to 65 years.
Mohammad El-Mezain, former Holy Land endowments director and a Muslim prayer leader who delivered fiery speeches on confiscated videotapes in the case, spoke passionately about his devotion to charity, which he said was "more important to me than any political agenda."
"We did it all in the name of America," said El-Mezain, who received 15 years. "The Holy Land Foundation was no different than any other Jewish or Baptist charity."
Dennis Lormel, who created the FBI's Terrorist Financing Operations Section and now is a security consultant, said after the sentencings that the punishments were appropriate.
"Holy Land and the five guilty principals fully deserve the sentences handed down," he said. "Anyone criticizing the U.S. government in this matter should redirect their criticism to where it's deserved. Hamas is a terrorist organization that clearly exploited the vulnerability of charitable giving for their organizational benefit as opposed to the benefit of the Palestinian people."
Mark Briskman, head of the regional office of the pro-Jewish Anti-Defamation League, lauded Solis as a "no-nonsense judge who gets it."
"The implication of this trial is significant, and the sentencing handed down by the judge indicates that seriousness."
Kay Guinane, program manager for the Charity and Security Network, a project of the government watchdog group OMB Watch, predicted more trouble for U.S. charities doing international outreach, which is already suffering because of the Holy Land prosecution.
"The ... sentences handed down in the Holy Land Foundation trial indicate that this situation is likely to get worse," she said.