(CHICAGO 09/02/2011) – ‘Optimistic’ is the word lawyers used to describe their feelings after presenting oral arguments in defense of the Holy Land Foundation Five before the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans Thursday.
Speaking to AMP from a busload of supporters returning to Dallas, Texas from New Orleans, Khalil Meek, director of the Muslim Legal Fund of America, said the oral arguments “went as well as they possibly could. …The overall tone that describes it is ‘optimistic.’
The appeal has been a long time coming.
On December 4, 2001, President George Bush closed the Dallas, Texas-based Holy Land for Relief and Development Foundation – at that time the largest Muslim charity in the United States – by executive order. Three years later, the Justice Department issued indictments against five men who were employees, board members and volunteers with Holy Land. In the first trial, the jury was deadlocked on most counts, resulting in a mistrial. The government retried the case. The men were convicted and at least one – Ghassan Elashi – received an unusually harsh sentence of 65 years in prison.
Four of the five men have been placed in “Communication Management Units,” in Marion, Illinois and Terre Haute, Indiana, Meek said. CMUs, which until recently were kept secret, are prisons where communication and interaction with family, lawyers – even prison guards – are extremely restricted. Elashi’s daughter Noor, writing in an op-ed for Counterpunch, said, “I only get to hear my father’s voice once every two weeks, for fifteen minutes.”
National Public Radio dubbed CMUs, “Guantanamo North,” because they house mainly Muslim and/or Arab prisoners, Noor Elashi wrote.
A team of 19 lawyers assembled by the MLFA has been working on the appeal for the past two and a half years, Meek said. They already had submitted written briefs, which were then discussed before a panel of three judges Thursday. The legal team was emboldened by the words of the chief judge who told the lawyers, “’I just want to commend the panel of attorneys. These were world class briefs,’” Meek told AMP.
Two key points in the appeal were the government’s use of anonymous experts (secret witnesses) and the fact that the majority of the evidence presented by the government was hearsay, the MLFA said in a statement. Using secret witnesses violated the defendants constitutionally guaranteed right to confront their accusers.
“The arguments for overturning the convictions in court today were extremely compelling, especially considering the cumulative effect of the incredible volume of evidentiary issues,” Meek said in a prepared statement. “We know this battle isn’t over yet, but we remain optimistic that justice will prevail and the Holy Land Five will finally be free.
Now, there is nothing to do but wait, Meek told AMP. It could take anywhere from three to six months – or longer — for the appellate court to render a decision. Even if the Holy Land defendants prevail, their immediate liberty is not guaranteed – especially if federal prosecutors decide to retry the case again.
To learn more about the case or to make a donation to the Muslim Legal Fund of American, click here.
~ Kristin Szremski
This article first appeared on the website for the American Muslims for Palestine (AMP).