Attorneys for Mohammed Salah, who was acquitted of racketeering charges last week, have vowed to keep working to clear the name of the Bridgeview man deemed a terrorist by the federal government and to help his family lead a normal life.
"These good people have had their lives put through the wringer," longtime Salah attorney Matthew Piers said Friday. "We are not done fighting on behalf of this family."
While the long-looming threat of a hefty prison sentence may now be off the table, Salah still faces an uncertain future of civil-court judgments, restricted liberties and the stigma of the government's terrorist label.
Salah, 53, was acquitted Thursday of the terrorism-related charges after a three-month trial. He was found guilty of a far lesser charge of obstruction of justice, but the overall outcome marked a dramatic victory for the defense in a case once touted by the U.S. Justice Department as an important component of the war on terror.
"If this is the government's idea of the war on terror, it should keep us all awake at night," said Piers, a vocal critic of several federal anti-terror cases unveiled after 9-11. "This was a political prosecution plain and simple, and I think everyone in that courtroom knew it."
In the racketeering case, Salah was accused of breaking American laws to aid the militant Palestinian group Hamas, which is considered a terrorist group by the U.S. government. According to federal prosecutors, he delivered laundered money to Hamas operatives in the Occupied Territories in the early 1990s and helped recruit would-be terrorists.
The obstruction charge normally wouldn't carry much prison time, although prosecutors might push to have Salah's 1993 conviction in an Israeli military court on Hamas money-running charges count against him here. Defense attorneys, who insist the Israeli conviction was the result of bogus confessions tortured out of Salah during a two-month interrogation session, contend Salah should receive only probation for the U.S. conviction.
Also hanging over Salah's head is a 1998 civil case filed by federal prosecutors in a bid to seize $1.4 million in cash and assets they claimed Salah meant to funnel to Hamas. That civil case was put on hold as a criminal probe into Salah's alleged Hamas links stopped and started over the years.
Records show prosecutors were prepared to settle the case in July 2001 under an agreement that would have let the government keep the cash and Salah keep his Thomas Street house. But after the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, the investigation into Salah's past was rekindled and the deal died.
"It's still pending and the government plans on pursuing it," First Assistant U.S. Attorney Gary Shapiro said of prosecutors' civil case after the verdict in the criminal case was announced.
Piers said he'll likely argue the case should be tossed out on double-jeopardy grounds: The criminal case included many of the same allegations as the government's civil case, and prosecutors would have moved to seize Salah's cash and assets if he had been convicted on the racketeering charge.
"Our position is that the government had their shot and they lost," Piers said. "Beyond that, the government would come off looking extremely vindictive and they would be skating on very thin ice legally."
"But we're more than ready to take on the government if they want to pursue the civil forfeiture case."
Salah's assets have been blocked by the federal government since August 1995, more than two years before he would be released from an Israeli prison and return to Bridgeview. His family initially was allowed to withdraw living expenses from the frozen money, but Piers said that arrangement ended years ago.
"They're penniless," Piers said. "They've been living off the support of people in their community, and they would have starved to death without that."
Indeed, after the racketeering acquittal Thursday, Salah pointed out that generosity among crowds of supporters swarming the Dirksen Federal Building in a tearful celebration that continued into that night at the Bridgeview mosque.
"I have to thank everyone who helped my family put food on the table," Salah said.
Salah also could someday be on the hook for a share of a $156 million judgment against him and a group of local organizations accused of financing Hamas in the 1990s. The judgment was the result of a civil lawsuit filed by the parents of a Jewish teen killed in a West Bank terrorist attack.
Although the organizations had little money and the federal government already had dibs on Salah's assets, attorneys for the teen's family have aggressively moved to seize books, fax machines and Internet domain names from the groups in an effort to dismantle what they said was once a clandestine terrorist financing network.
The judgment has been appealed, and attorneys expect a decision soon. Oral arguments in the case were heard well over a year ago; the appeals court may have been reluctant to release a ruling in the high-profile civil case while the equally high-profile criminal trial was unfolding.
But perhaps most difficult to overcome is the fact Salah was declared a "Specially Designated Terrorist" in an executive order of the U.S. government in 1997; he's still the only American citizen to hold the distinction. It means Salah needs special licenses from the U.S. Treasury Department to get a job or conduct financial transactions, must account for his spending and explain any travel plans.
The terror classification was made outside the judicial system, but Piers said Salah may eventually mount a legal challenge to the designation now that he's been acquitted of terrorism charges 10 years after he was labeled a terrorist.
Just as his racketeering trial drew crowds of supporters for months, Salah's fight to clear his name would be closely watched in the local Muslim community.
"We hope that the suffering of the Salah family is over," Chicago director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations Ahmed Rehab said in a statement last week. "We also hope that the 'terrorism' label be reserved in the future for those found guilty of that charge in an open and fair trial administered in a respected court of law."