Despite the best efforts of federal prosecutors, a Chicago jury refused to convict Palestinian activist Muhammad Salah on racketeering charges in one of the highest-profile cases of the Bush administration’s “war on terror.”
Salah and co-defendant Abdelhaleem Ashqar were acquitted on charges that they engaged in a “racketeering conspiracy” to provide money and other aid to the Palestinian organization Hamas in the early 1990s. The two were convicted of several lesser charges unrelated to terrorism.
“It is better than we thought,” Salah told reporters after the verdict was read, as dozens of supporters, many from the local Muslim community, gathered in celebration. “We are good people, not terrorists.”
When the case against the men was announced by then-Attorney General John Ashcroft in 2004, government officials made it clear that they viewed a conviction against Salah and Ashqar as a major part of the “war on terror.”
Ashcroft painted Salah and Ashqar as among the worst of the worst, telling reporters that between 1988 and 1993, the men “ran a U.S.-based terrorist-recruiting and financing cell” that “financed the activities of a terrorist organization that was murdering innocent victims abroad, including American citizens.”
Salah and Ashqar joined a growing list of Muslim and Arab activists that the government has prosecuted for “materially aiding” terrorism–a list that includes former charity organizers like Rabih Haddad and Enaam Arnaout, as well as University of South Florida professor Sami Al-Arian, who remains to this day imprisoned by the government on minor charges in extremely harsh conditions.
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THE GOVERNMENT claimed Salah and Ashqar used U.S. bank accounts to funnel money to Hamas, thereby making them directly responsible for supposed crimes carried out by Hamas in Israel. But the case against Salah, in particular, was riddled with inconsistencies.
Weeks before the trial began last fall, prosecutors were forced to drop a key charge against Salah–that he had sent a recruit to scout terrorist targets in Israel in 1999–after it came to light that the FBI didn’t trust the credibility of the “recruit,” who was an undercover government informant.
The rest of the supposed crimes committed by the men took place before 1997, when Hamas was first classified by the government as a “foreign terrorist organization.”
In addition, the key piece of evidence against Salah was a confession obtained in 1993 while he was in the custody of Israeli secret police–who are known for using torture in interrogations.
Salah had been arrested at a checkpoint in Gaza with money that the Israeli authorities claimed was for Hamas operations, but which he said was for humanitarian purposes.
Salah says he was then tortured by Israeli police. In court papers, he described being “hooded, bound, deprived of sleep, housed in a refrigerator cell, threatened, physically abused, held incommunicado and denied access to a lawyer until he made oral statements and signed written statements in Hebrew, a language he did not speak or understand.”
Salah spent nearly five years in an Israeli prison before being allowed to return to his home and family in the U.S.
But U.S. prosecutors glossed over the well-documented record of torture techniques used by Israeli police, and the judge let Salah’s “confession” be considered as evidence–with the two Israeli interrogators who allegedly questioned Salah allowed to testify under aliases and with their faces concealed.
During the trial, U.S. Treasury Department official Matthew Levitt, a government witness, was allowed to detail acts of terrorism allegedly committed by Hamas against Israel between 1992 and 2004–even during the years when Salah was stuck in an Israeli prison. But as Salah’s lawyer, Michael Deutsch, pointed out on cross-examination, Levitt’s emphasis on Israeli casualties obscured the reality of daily life for Palestinians.
According to one study Deutsch referred to, approximately 1,400 Israeli soldiers and civilians have been killed since 1987, compared to more than 5,500 Palestinians killed. “Are you not interested in the fact that Palestinians, unarmed Palestinian people, are killed at a rate of five times the number of Israelis killed?” Deutsch asked Levitt.
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PROSECUTORS ARE now claiming that any conviction against Salah and Ashqar is a “victory.” But the failure to convict the two on the most serious charges is widely seen as a serious setback for the home front of the U.S. “war on terror.”
“This rejects the idea we can criminalize someone for resisting an illegal occupation in another country,” attorney Michael Deutsch told the Washington Post.
Many in the Muslim community see the acquittals as a sign of hope. As Salah told reporters as he left the courtroom, “The terrorism theory is defeated. We are not terrorists, and everyone can see it.” Amira Daoud, who worships at the same mosque as Salah, told the Chicago Tribune, “Our community will no longer have to be afraid. I’m so glad that American people–his peers–gave a verdict that shows he couldn’t have done this.”
Unfortunately, the lesser charges that Salah and Ashqar were convicted of could carry a maximum sentence of 10 years in prison. And there’s every indication the government will try to make sure they’re given the maximum.
After all, the U.S. Justice Department continued its witch-hunt against Sami Al-Arian even after a jury last year acquitted him of, or deadlocked on, 17 major terrorism charges. Al-Arian later pled guilty to a single count of a relatively minor charge in order to avoid a retrial and end his ordeal.
Yet he remains in prison today, having twice been found guilty of contempt after refusing to testify in another case–despite the fact that his original plea agreement exempted him from further testimony.
Al-Arian is in his third week of a hunger strike to protest the brutal conditions he’s facing in prison–including solitary confinement, physical and verbal abuse from guards, and prison cells infested with rats and roaches.
As lawyer William Moffitt, who has represented both Ashqar and Al-Arian, told the New York Times, the government wants to use these cases to turn the fight for Palestinian rights in the Middle East “into a battle of criminal law in an American courtroom.” “The Bush administration cannot win this war by trying to make criminals out of people who are fighting for their freedom,” he told reporters. “And two American juries have said that.”
NICOLE COLSON writes for the Socialist Worker.