By Terry Baynes
(Reuters) - A federal appeals court on Wednesday upheld the convictions of five leaders of an Islamic charity on charges of funneling money and supplies to Hamas, designated a "terrorist" group following a 1995 executive order by President Bill Clinton.
The organizers of the Texas-based Holy Land Foundation argued that they were denied a fair trial in 2008 when the government used secret Israeli witnesses to testify against them. The organizers also raised a host of constitutional challenges to the evidence presented against them at trial.
The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit rejected those challenges, concluding that "while no trial is perfect," Holy Land and its leaders were fairly convicted. The court pointed to "voluminous evidence" that the foundation, which was started in the late 1980s, had long-running financial ties to Hamas. Once the largest Muslim charity in the United States, Holy Land was closed by the administration of former President George W. Bush soon after the attacks of September 11, 2001.
Holy Land argued that the millions of dollars it raised went to charities in the West Bank and Gaza known as zakat committees. Although those committees performed legitimate charitable functions, they were also Hamas social institutions, the court found. Federal law makes it a crime to provide material aid and support to a designated terrorist organization like Hamas.
"By supporting such entities, the defendants facilitated Hamas' activity by furthering its popularity among Palestinians and by providing a funding resource. This, in turn, allowed Hamas to concentrate its efforts on violent activity," Judge Carolyn King wrote on behalf of the unanimous three-judge panel.
Federal prosecutors indicted the foundation and its leaders in 2004 for providing material support to a designated terrorist group.
While the first trial in 2007 ended in a mistrial, a federal jury convicted the five individuals in 2008 on charges that included money laundering, tax fraud and conspiracy.
On appeal, the leaders argued that the trial judge should not have allowed two Israeli witnesses to testify without revealing their real names. Pseudonyms prevented their lawyers from examining the witnesses' credentials and backgrounds, they contended.
"The Confrontation Clause of the U.S. Constitution basically didn't apply to these experts," said Gregory Westfall, a lawyer for defendant Abdulrahman Odeh. He said his client would likely file an appeal and predicted that the case would eventually reach the Supreme Court.
Westfall described the prosecution as an unfortunate event in U.S. history. The foundation provided food and relief supplies to the Palestinian people, who were in great need, he said.
The charity organizers received prison sentences ranging from 15 to 65 years.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Susan Cowger did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
(Reporting by Terry Baynes; Editing by Eileen Daspin and Greg McCune)