Today, a cloud of déjà vu is hovering over a federal courthouse in downtown Dallas, Texas. Prosecutors will begin retrying my father and four other associates of the Holy Land Foundation (HLF), which was the largest American Muslim charity until the Bush administration shut it down in December 2001.
Labeled as the most extensive terror-funding case in U.S. history, the HLF trial ended in a mistrial in October 2007 with no guilty convictions. After two months of testimony and 19 days of deliberations, jurors failed to reach a verdict on most of the 197 counts.
"From what I read and what I saw in the facts and what I was presented, the defense didn't even have to stand and say anything because the prosecution failed completely," juror William Neal said in a radio interview days after the mistrial.
Thirteen months later, I walk through the same metal detectors and take the elevators to the same floor in the same courthouse, the Earle Cabell Federal Building, as last year. I watch the same prosecutors argue the same bizarre case: that HLF officials conspired to send money to zakat (charity) committees in the occupied Palestinian territories that were somehow linked to Hamas, even though they showed no link. In fact, the U.S. government continues to work with these same charities today.
I turn to the court audience and smile as I see the same diverse group of American professors, students, architects, doctors, nurses, engineers and lawyers standing in solidarity to attest that giving charity to the needy should not be a crime.
My heart fills with pride as I witness the resilience of the same Palestinian-American men -- my father, Ghassan Elashi and his colleagues Shukri Abu-Baker, Mohammad El-Mezain, Abdulrahman Odeh and Mufid Abdulqader -- undergo yet another unjust trial.
During the next several weeks, they will be subjected to the same type of character assassination, litany of lies and innuendo, as the government tries to frighten a jury into reaching a verdict based on guilt by association, a most un-American effort.
Last year, an Israeli Defense Forces agent -- who was never identified -- testified that the HLF was "born by design" as a part of a global network whose "ultimate goal is to teach students how to be suicide bombers." Never mind that the general public was barred from the courtroom when this secret agent was speaking, denying my father his constitutional right to confront his accuser. Since when does giving clothes to infants with no fathers, or donating ambulances to teenagers dispossessed by war and backpacks to children whose parents are unemployed and destitute constitute violence?
In the upcoming weeks, the same group of courageous defense lawyers will once again expose the prosecution's attempt to sell their case by scaring jurors with the ominous-sounding terrorism boogieman.
The defense attorneys did this last year through the testimony of a former U.S. Diplomat in Jerusalem, Edward Abington, who told the jury about the 500 Israeli checkpoints and more than 70 Israeli fenced settlements in the West Bank, along with other blatant signs of Israel's dehumanizing occupation of Palestinians and the desperate need for humanitarian aid.
These points were also made through the testimony of Natalia Suleiman, who said the HLF was a charity that eased the plight of impoverished people in numerous countries worldwide, including Bosnia, Albania, Turkey and the U.S. through food packages, medical projects, back-to-school programs and orphan sponsorship programs.
George Washington University professor Nathan Brown also testified, saying the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) gave money to some of the same zakat committees to which the HLF donated.
But not everything is the same this time around. The retrial will take place in a much larger courtroom with a different judge, U.S. District Judge Jorge Solis. And this year, three of the men will be tried on lesser charges. Mr. El-Mezain, who was acquitted of all but one of the 32 counts against him last year, will be retried on that charge, exposing the vindictive nature of this prosecution.
Prosecutors recently dropped nearly 30 counts against two other men, leaving only three against them. This leaves my father and another defendant, Mr. Abu-Baker, who will be retried on 35 and 34 counts respectively.
Another difference between the two trials is, of course, the new set of jurors. The eight-woman, two-man jury was selected last week during three days of intense jury questioning.
But as we begin yet another painful chapter in this saga, I can only hope the retrial will bring with it a different fate: a full acquittal for all five men. My family needs my father to start climbing down the tall, monstrous mountain of arrests, false accusations and painful separation. My 8-year-old brother, Omar, who has Down Syndrome, needs his father to take him on long strolls around the neighborhood. My mother needs her husband to help raise their children. My sisters and I need dad to hug us and kiss us and ask us about our classes and jobs. My brothers need him to watch them play soccer, skateboard and practice Tae Kwon Do.
Though my government has unjustly arrested my father -- and wasted millions in taxpayer dollars to prosecute him when his only crime was supporting needy Palestinians -- I have faith in the American justice system. I have faith that this year's jury will come to the same conclusion as William Neal, a juror who served in last year's trial. He was able to see beyond the prosecution's fear-mongering and intimidation to see they had no evidence. Hours after a mistrial was announced last year, Neal told reporters, "There really was nothing there for me, no concrete evidence ... I thought they were not guilty across the board."
Hopefully, this year will mark the end of this overblown, unnecessary, unfair and oppressive persecution, motivated by nothing more than a naked attempt by the Bush administration to show it's fighting a "War on Terror." And hopefully, this year, justice will be served and the déjà vu cloud hovering over the courthouse will vanish.
To follow the day-to-day developments of the Holy Land Foundation trial, please visit: www.freedomtogive.com