Michael Ratner : Government incarceration of five leaders of a Muslim foundation that supported Palestinians is an affront to human rights
JIHAN HAFIZ, PRODUCER AND REPORTER, TRNN: Welcome to The Real News Network here in Baltimore. My name is Jihan Hafiz, and you’re watching The Ratner Report.
Michael Ratner is the president emeritus of the Center for Constitutional Rights in New York and the chair of the European Center for Constitutional and Human Rights in Berlin. He’s also a board member for The Real News Network. Michael, thank you so much for joining us on this week’s report.
MICHAEL RATNER, PRESIDENT EMERITUS, CENTER FOR CONSTITUTIONAL RIGHTS: It’s always good to be with you.
HAFIZ: Thank you. Can you speak just a little bit about what you have been working on this week, please?
RATNER: Well, actually, I just walked into the office and am doing this interview immediately after I attended and spoke at a demonstration in support of a case probably a lot of listeners haven’t heard of, but a very important case, called the Holy Land Five. I went to the protest here in New York in front of the federal building, and I was there with a daughter of one of the defendants in the case. Her name is Noor Elashi.
Let me give you a little background. The Holy Land Five were at one time the leadership of the largest Muslim charity in the United States called the Holy Land Foundation. After 9/11, the United States government came along and they shut down the six largest Muslim charities in the United States without any kind of court hearings, without any due process. They just shut them down, the claim being, presumably, that some of their money somehow was going to people they didn’t likeâ€”alleged terrorists, Hamas, or whatever. In fact, probably none of that was true. None of it was proven.
But the main charity was the Holy Land Five. The Holy Land Five, as Iâ€”I’m sorry. The main charity was the Holy Land Foundation. The Holy Land Foundation was the largest charity, and it gave money primarily to Palestinians. And that was the second reason, I think, that they wanted it shut down. In this country, any support for Palestine is considered suspect. And so they not only shut down the foundation, but then they went back to the leadership of the foundation. This began about five years ago when they indicted the leadership of the foundation.
A man named Ghassan Elashi was the head of it. He went to a trial onâ€”the charge being he was materially aiding terrorism by funding various charitable groups in Palestine. We’ll talk about that in a second. But the first trial resulted in a hung jury. The government went back and did a second trial. They convicted him of materially aiding terrorism for running this foundation and giving money to Palestinians. And he got not just one year, but he got 65 years in prison. He’s been in prison now for half a dozen years. He’s in one of the worst prisons in the United States, the communications management unit in Marion, Illinois, where his communications are very limited.
I want to go back to the trial first, because the charge against him was materially aiding terrorism. And what they claimed was not that he directly aided a terrorist group, but that indirectly some of the people he gave to were either controlled by or under the control of Hamas, the group that runsâ€”the political group that runs Gaza. Now, thatâ€”Hamas is on the U.S. terrorist list, so I can’t give money to Hamas. Nor can I, really, give money to people who are going to give money to Hamas.
What they claimed that the Holy Land Foundation did was give money to groups called zakat groups in Palestine, and then those groups were secretly controlled by Hamas. But there was no real evidence that the Holy Land Foundation knew that, that Mr.Â Elashi knew that, etc. And that’s why they lost the first trial [incompr.]
HAFIZ: If I could just mention something very briefly, Michael, zakat is actually one of the pillars of Islam. It’s to give back to the poor. So there you go, if you don’t mind continuing.
RATNER: Yes, that’s correct. It’s one of the chief five pillars, and one of the reasons Muslim charities have done so well in terms of donations is because is it is one of the five pillars of Islam. But these charitable groups all over Palestine were named zakat.
The money goes from the Holy Land Foundation to these various zakat groups all over Palestine. At the first trial, the government couldn’t prove or they failed to prove that somehowâ€”that Elashi and the others in the Holy Land Five who were tried knew that the zakat groups were controlled by Hamas. So at the second trial, what did the government do? They bring in a secret witness from Israel whoâ€”and when I say secret witness, it’s the first time in a U.S. court in a criminal trial where someone was put on the stand as an expert to testify about the relationship, in this case, between the zakat groups and Hamas, to testify about that relationship, who is anonymous. They wouldn’t give his name to the defense. The defense didn’t know who he was. They couldn’t cross-examine him effectively. The first time ever.
And, of course, this Israeli intelligence agent testified, as you would expect, that zakats were in part, at least, controlled by Hamas. On that basis the jury convicted the Holy Land Five, and on that basis the judge gaveâ€”even assuming there was any guilt here, which I don’t think there was, gave them one of the most outrageous sentences I’ve ever seen in an American court: 65 years for a group, for a man that never directly aided any kind of terrorism, never did a vile thing in his life.
So in the end you’re left with a political case in which a man was sentenced to 65 years for, really, giving humanitarian support, blankets and other things, to Palestinians. He’s then further punished by being put into a communications management unit. It’s been 11 years of this nightmare. And the press conference I was at today was one in which we were objecting and in which we were bringing attention to his case and in which we were waiting for a Supreme Court decision not on the ultimate case but on the very question of whether the Supreme Court will even hear this appeal of this outrageous case, particularly with regard to this witness who is anonymous and an Israeli intelligence agent.
And I wish it would end there, but this really won’t end for these people, for the Holy Land Five, until we get them out of prison. But the sad part to me is not just that and the destruction of a Muslim charity and [incompr.] to the humanitarian aid to Palestinians who really need it, but that this law, the materially aiding terrorists law, has been used across the United States to get all kinds of people who cooperate in any way, directly or indirectly, with groups the U.S. has designated terrorists.
HAFIZ: Can you mention how some of these groupsâ€”you say that they’re designating. Usually that word, terrorist, is affiliated to Muslim groups. Is that why this law was initiated, to go after specifically Muslim groups and to break down some of these charity organizations?
RATNER: You know, the law has been on the books since the early ’90s. We actually represented some of the people who wanted to help some of these groupsâ€”teach them the Geneva Conventions, things like that, give blankets to their hospital. And so we started litigating this case before 9/11â€”not the Muslim cases, but some other cases, the Tamil Tigers, some others.
But then what happened is in 2004 they expanded the reach of the law, exactly for the reason that you indicated: they expanded the reach of the material aid to terrorism law so that they could shut down these Muslim charities by simply this designation that’s really unchallengeable. And what they’ve done is not just shut them down, but they’ve criminally indicted all kinds of people all over the country. And, in fact, if you look at the Muslim prosecutions post-9/11, they’reâ€”90Â percent of them are based on this expanded view of materially aiding terrorism, so that if I write an op-ed in support of something, if I were to write an op-ed, you know, in any way sort of consulting with Hamas about doing it, I could be considered to be materially supporting terrorism. It’s an outrageous law, it’s a law really against advocacy and humanitarian aid, but it’s a law certainly in the last year since 9/11 has been aimed particularly at Muslims, not just charities, about Muslims who have any relationship at all with groups that the U.S. designates as terrorist.
Now, what’s interesting is the zakat groups we just talked about in the Holy Land Five case, those were not designated as terrorist. You would think that if they were really front groups for Hamas, that the U.S. would have designated it. But they didn’t. It just shows what a really made-up political persecution this was.
Now, when I look at this case, I also look at the Holy Land Five case in the broader context of what’s going on in this country for Muslims. We won’t have a long discussion about that here, but if you go from the New York City police department, you know, going into every Mosque in the country, or the ones inâ€”the cops in Los Angeles going into mosques, or making films like The Third Jihad which say that Muslim terrorists coming to this country and, you know, there’s a Muslim flag waving over the White House, you go from that through the Muslim charity cases, the Holy Land Five, to Guantanamo, to killing Muslims with drones, what you have is whatâ€”I would say, probably the darkest period in American history in terms of the overt repression of a particular population through every legal means it can find. [incompr.] has very little, if nothing, to do with it.
HAFIZ: That’s a very interesting point. Michael, I wanted to ask you a bit about the Obama administration. President Obama spoke in Cairo, Egypt, in 2009, before the revolution there, and said that his administration was going to create a broader policy of outreach and understanding toward the Muslim community here in the United Statesâ€”as well, abroad. But a recent report from CAIR, the Council on Americanâ€“Islamic Relations, found that 25Â percent of Muslim voters are undecided, and that was usually the bloc that was designated forâ€”usually voting for Obama. Can you talk a bit about how the Obama administration has been towards the Muslim community here in the United States and if they’re reaching out to them in this election cycle?
RATNER: You know, a lot of people were impressed with the Cairo speech. I mean, it looked like an opening into the Middle East. Of course, you have to contrast that with the speech Obama gave to the UN, which was the most anti-Palestinian, pro-Israel speech probably any American president has ever given in his life. That’s not a good start in terms of the Muslim population.
But you go further, of course, and there’s all kinds of problems with the issues that he promised to do better on. So Obama promised to close Guantanamo, yet as we speak, 166 people remain in Guantanamo, 88 of them even the U.S. finds to be innocent. He promised to end military trials; they’re continuing. He made all kinds of promises. But in fact the policies in many ways, you could argue, are worse than under Bush.
If you look at drones, for example, the killing of Muslims by drones, Bush used 50 drones. Obama, in half the time that he’s been in office, compared to Bush, has used 350 drones, and it’s increasing. And he’s used them way outside of war zones. He’s used them in Yemen, he’s used them in Somalia, and other places we don’t know.
So I can’t believe that this record of oppressing Muslims both in our laws, as well as with drones, as well as with Guantanamo, will endear Obama to Muslims. And his position on Palestine has been just absolutely awful, completelyâ€”you know, the debate the other night, he just tried toâ€”they both tried toâ€”you didn’t know what country the two guys were running for, whether it was the president of Israel or the president of the United States. So I believe Muslims have to be deeply disappointed with Obama’s actions, if not having been impressed with his earlier words.
So I think that it’s not surprising to me that you might as well, if you’re a Muslim, take the roll of the dice here. Can Romney really be worse on these issues than Obama? Sure, it’s possible. But you mightâ€”well, maybe he’ll be a little better, although on Israel I can’t say that. I mean, you have to remember who Romney is close to. You [incompr.] understand why Muslims will be very upset with Obama.
HAFIZ: I wanted to ask you one last question. Why has there been a lot of this fearmongering toward the Muslim community? The Holy Land Five caseâ€”excuse me, the case with the Holy Land Foundation dates back ten years ago. So, obviously, this has been a perspective that is deeply rooted, it would seem, since there are laws and there seems to be a history of this kind of fearmongering. Why? Why towards the Muslim community?
RATNER: You know, I mean, you know, the roots are obviously very deep, and people have written on the roots going way back into the Middle East and the struggle for oil and the demonization of Arabs, and of course of Muslims, and then of Palestinians [incompr.] kind of historical roots.
But it also became, at least in this country, a very convenient political whipping horse, in which they just triedâ€”in which people tried to gain political leverage through trashing Muslims. And they’ve continued to do this through this election cycle. Certainly since 9/11 it’s been, obviously, you know, going up, you know, hugely, because the people who flew the planes into the World Trade Center were Muslims, but they have condemned the entire community for that. So you have the legal apparatus really going after.
And then, of course, you have the political and pundit apparatus going after the Muslims. And then, of course, you have Israel right in here, so that you get a poster, you know, like we had in San Francisco or like we had in New York basically comparing Palestinians to savages [incompr.] support civilization against the savages, who are the Muslims, the Palestinians. So we’re in a very, very bad period. I mean, we’ve had dark periods of witch hunts before, but this one has a uniqueness to it because it’s so broad, it’s so much against their religion, a religion that only has 1.25Â billion in the world. So we’re taking our chances.
It’s also so related, I think, to U.S. hegemony in the Middle East and wanting to continue to have that hegemony with those countries that are our partners, as against those countries that don’t want to be our partners.
HAFIZ: A very interesting update, Michael. Actually, over a billion Muslims will be celebrating the Eid holiday for the next three days. So I think this is the topical conversation in that case. It was great to have you. Thanks for joining us here on The Real News.
RATNER: Thank you for having me.
HAFIZ: And thank you for watching The Real News. My name is Jihan Hafiz, here from Baltimore. Until next time, take care.