Holy Land Members Get 65 Years in Prison

Two founding members of what was once the nation's largest Muslim charity were each sentenced to 65 years in prison Wednesday for funneling millions of dollars to the Palestinian militant group Hamas.

Shukri Abu Baker, 50, of Garland, was the first of five members of the Holy Land Foundation for Relief and Development to be sentenced Wednesday. Ghassan Elashi, 55, of Richardson, also got 65 years. Another defendant, Mohammad El-Mezain, 55, was sentenced to 180 months for one count of conspiracy to support a terrorist organization.

The November convictions of the five men on 108 charges followed a mistrial in which the government in 2007 failed to sway jurors that the charity sent more than $12 million to the Palestinian terrorist group Hamas. It's illegal to offer Hamas support because it was designated a terrorist organization by the U.S. in 1995. The group has taken credit for hundreds of suicide bombings targeting Israeli civilians.

The Holy Land leaders were convicted on charges ranging from supporting a terrorist organization to money laundering and tax fraud. Abu Baker, Elashi, Mufid Abdulqader and Abdulrahman Odeh were convicted of conspiracy, and Holy Land itself was convicted of 32 counts.

Holy Land wasn't accused of violence, but of bankrolling schools and social welfare programs the government says are controlled by Hamas. The defendants said they only fed the needy and gave much-needed aid to a volatile region.

"I did it because I cared, not at the behest of Hamas," Abu Baker told the judge Wednesday during a long address to the court.

U.S. District Judge Jorge Solis cut off Abu Baker and told him: "You didn't tell the whole story. Palestinians were in a desperate situation, but that doesn't justify supporting Hamas."

Holy Land's supporters say the prosecution was a politically motivated product of Bush's "war on terror" and a prime example of post-Sept. 11, anti-Islam hysteria.

Defense attorneys also protested an Israel official allowed to testify anonymously that Hamas members were among the leaders of Holy Land's benefactors. The Israeli agent, who testified under the pseudonym "Avi," also appeared in the 2007 trial.

Copyright AP - Associated Press
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