Covering Louisiana

Nov 7, 2012 4:02 PM by AP

Court hears dispute over Muslim charity's assets

NEW ORLEANS (AP) - Several victims of a 1997 terrorist attack in Israel urged a federal appeals court Wednesday to uphold a judge's ruling that they can recover money seized from a Texas-based Muslim charity linked to the Palestinian militant group Hamas.

A three-judge panel from the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals didn't indicate when it would rule after hearing arguments in a case stemming from the convictions of five members of the Holy Land Foundation for Relief and Development, which funneled money to Hamas.

U.S. District Judge Jorge Solis in Dallas ruled last year that the Richardson, Texas-based charity's assets can be used to satisfy a $214.5 million judgment against Hamas won by nine U.S. citizens who were victims of a triple suicide bombing at an outdoor pedestrian mall in Jerusalem on Sept. 4, 1997.

But the federal government argues it has the legal authority to determine how to distribute $12.4 million forfeited by the charity in the wake of its members' 2008 convictions.

David Strachman, a lawyer for the bombing victims, argued that the Terrorism Risk Insurance Act of 2002 trumps criminal forfeiture statutes and allows victims like his clients to enforce civil judgments against terrorist groups. The 2002 law is designed to keep government bureaucrats from deciding how to divvy up assets seized from terrorist groups and their affiliates, Strachman said.

"After living through this ordeal and years of litigation, they are caught in the web of exactly what Congress intended to remedy by enacting TRIA," he said of his clients.

5th Circuit Judge Edward Prado asked Strachman if he sees any conflict between the 2002 law and the forfeiture statutes.

"Not at all," Strachman said. "The whole purpose of TRIA was to avoid this kind of conflict."

Justice Department attorney Vijay Shanker said the government always has intended to equitably distribute the charity's assets among U.S. victims of Hamas attacks.

"(Strachman) has given no reason for this court to deem that disingenuous," Shanker said.

Appellate Judge Edith Brown Clement asked both attorneys if they have tried to settle the case. Strachman said it has been years since they last tried to hammer out a deal.

"The victims are not on the government's radar," he said. "The government has made no attempt of any kind to address these issues with us."

A different panel of the 5th Circuit upheld the convictions of the five members of Holy Land, once the nation's largest Muslim charity.

In November 2008, a jury convicted Ghassan Elashi, Holy Land's former chairman, and Shukri Abu Baker, the group's chief executive, of charges that included supporting a specially designated terrorist organization, money laundering and tax fraud.

Mufid Abdulqader and Abdulrahman Odeh were convicted of three counts of conspiracy. Mohammed El-Mezain was convicted of one count of conspiracy to support a terrorist organization. Holy Land itself was convicted of all 32 counts.

Baker and Elashi were sentenced to 65 years in prison. Abdulqader received a 20-year prison sentence. Odeh and El-Mezain were sentenced to 15 years in prison.

An earlier trial had ended with jurors deadlocking on many counts.

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