In a significant setback to the Justice Department the US District Court Judge Dennis Saylor has overturned the convictions of a defunct Boston-based Islamic charity leader, Samir Al-Monla and ordered his immediate release.
Samir Al-Monla along with Emadeddin Muntasser and Muhammed Mubayyid, two other leaders of the former charity, Care International Inc., were convicted in January of conspiracy to dupe the US government into awarding their organization tax-exempt status by hiding its pro-jihad activities.
Muntasser, 44, was born in Libya and was the founder of Care International. Mubayyid, 43, was born in Lebanon and was the group's former treasurer. Al-Monla, 51, the group's president from 1996 to 1998, was born in Kuwait and is a US citizen. Their charity group, which was not affiliated with the well-known global relief organization CARE International, raised $1.7 million in donations from 1993 to 2001.
On June 3, Judge Sylor ruled that a jury should not have convicted them in January of most of the tax-related crimes for which they were tried.
Saylor ruled that the federal prosecutors failed to prove that the two defendants, Al-Monla and Muntasser, schemed to deceive the IRS about Care International's activities, even if they withheld information from other federal authorities. He pointed out that much of the government's evidence against the two was flimsy or cobbled together with flawed reasoning.
Saylor acquitted Emadeddin Muntasser of identical charges, but sustained his conviction for making a false statement to the FBI about having visited Afghanistan. However, federal sentencing guidelines call for a maximum of six months in prison for that crime, said Muntasser's lawyers, and the founder of Care International has spent almost that long at a federal detention facility in Rhode Island since the Jan. 11 verdict. That makes it likely he will be freed within days, according to his lawyers.
The three men were not charged with financing terrorist groups, but rather with failing to tell the IRS that Care International used some of its tax-exempt donations to publish the newsletter and other writings that allegedly favored a holy war.
After deliberating nearly 60 hours over nine days, jurors found that the three men concealed that Care International was an outgrowth of the Boston branch of the Al Kifah Refugee Center, which disbanded after members of the Al Kifah Refugee Center in Brooklyn, N.Y.were linked to the 1993 World Trade Center bombing in New York.The government has been building a case that Care International is an outgrowth or successor organization to Al-Kifah Refugee Center.
The FBI Joint Terrorism Task Force used wiretaps and covert searches to gather evidence that Care International in Boston published a newsletter glorifying jihad and mujahedeen and sent at least $130,000 between 1993 and 1995 to an organization that supports mujahedeen.
The jury seemed only too aware that this was not an ordinary tax and false statements case. On a motion from Charles P. McGinty, Mr. Al-Monla’s federal defender, Judge Saylor agreed before the verdict was reached to interview the jury forewoman about whether improper religious or ethnic bias was at play in the jury deliberations. That was after a juror sent this question to the judge: “This case has occurred in a particular and exceptional period and circumstances before and after 9-11-2001, which date was very crucial and having an emotional impact on all society. Could I, without personnel (sic) feelings, prejudices or sympathies I may have about the defendant’s religion, ethnicity or national origin, use this element to convict or not the defendants?” Although the judge did not publicly reveal the result of interviewing the forewoman, he called the lawyers to meet with him privately and then continued to allow the same jurors to deliberate.
During the 32-day trial Judge Saylor forbade references to the 9/11 terrorist attacks or to Osama bin Laden when the prosecution produced contentious witnesses linked to the pro-Israeli Washington Institute for Near East Policy and the Website globalterroralert.com.
One “expert” witness was Matthew Levitt, former Deputy Assistant U.S. Treasury Secretary for Intelligence and Analysis, an ex-employee at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, which was founded by a former official of American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), a lobbying organization of Israel. Levitt has spent time living with his father in Israel and speaks Hebrew, but only now is learning Arabic.
When the prosecution presented another “expert” witness, Evan F. Kohlmann, the founder of the pro-Israeli and anti-Muslim/Arab website www.globalterroralert.com, Judge Saylor warned the jury that the case is not about 9-11 or terrorism and they should draw no inferences from the fact the defendants are Middle Eastern and Muslims.
On January 11, 2008, the Jury convicted all the three defendants of conspiring to defraud and engaging in a scheme to conceal material facts from the Internal Revenue Service. In addition, Mubayyid was found guilty of three counts of filing a false tax return and obstructing and impeding the IRS. Muntasser was also convicted of making a false statement to the FBI. Al-Monla was found not guilty of making a false statement.
This win for the Government was significant since it came after two high-profile terrorism cases in which mistrial was declared. Three weeks before the Care International case began last fall, U.S. District Judge Joe Fish, in Dallas, declared a mistrial in the Holy Land Foundation for Relief and Development charity case after jurors failed to reach a verdict.
In December 2007, after nine days of deliberation, a jury in Miami acquitted one defendant of all charges and said it was deadlocked on the charges against the group's leader, who led a sect known as the Moorish Science Temple. It also deadlocked on five others, leading the judge to declare a mistrial. They accused of plotting to blow up Chicago's Sears Tower, and attack other targets. Tellingly on April 16, the Miami Judge declared a second mistrial in the case when a second jury failed to reach a verdict on the charges.
The strategic utility of charging alleged “terrorists” and their supporters for ordinary criminal activities that the government can easily prosecute has raised the eyebrow of civil right activists. Commenting on the January jury verdict, Jules Lobel, co-author of the book Less Safe, Less Free: Why America Is Losing the War on Terror" said: "Civil libertarians worry that verdicts such as the one Jan. 11 in Boston deal a blow to the country’s freedoms, which they say have been reeling since the Sept. 11 attacks six years ago. 'My general problem … is that they are using these prosecutions to go after groups that they think might be connected to terrorism, where they really don’t have any evidence that they are connected to terrorism.'