chicago • Prosecutors will make opening arguments today in the case of a Chicago grocer accused of funneling millions of dollars to the Palestinian group Hamas.
Hailed by the government as a victory in the war on terror, the case is seen by some in the Arab-American community as part of a broader crackdown on Muslim charities and an erosion of constitutional guarantees of due process and a fair trial.
Muhammad Salah spent nearly five years in an Israeli prison in the mid-1990s after admitting he committed a number of crimes on behalf of Hamas, which swept to power in January elections this year but remains designated by the United States as a terrorist organisation.
Painted as a top "bag man" whose US citizenship and gentle demeanor helped him slip across borders with piles of cash, prosecutors allege that Salah continued to launder money for Hamas when he returned to the United States in 1997. Salah's lawyers said he was just delivering humanitarian aid and tried to suppress his confessions to Israeli security forces by arguing they were obtained under torture.
Prosecutors accused them of trying to put the state of Israel on trial and flew two Israeli intelligence officers and an Israeli police officer to Chicago to refute the charges. Local rights groups were outraged that the public was banned from witnessing the testimony; an edited transcript was later made available.
Federal judge Amy St Eve ruled that Salah's allegations of sleep deprivation and other forms of physical and psychological torture were not credible. She noted that case law gives testimony a higher weight than sworn statements and that Salah did not take the stand. Avoiding a potentially damning cross-examination was a gamble that could cost Salah his freedom. The evidence in the confession is damning and includes detailed descriptions of his alleged crimes. His lawyers are hoping a jury will be more willing to accept that the confession was coerced.
"The question is, what was his intent?" said defense attorney Michael Deutsch, who noted that the United States had not designated Hamas as a terrorist organisation until years after Salah's arrest and confession in Israel. The mild-mannered devout Muslim is seen by some Arab-Americans as the victim of a post-9/11 witch hunt and a skewed understanding of the situation in the Middle East. "For many, he is a symbol of a larger Palestinian struggle," said Ahmed Rehab, executive director of the Chicago chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations.