By BOB RAY SANDERS Star-Telegram Fort Worth, TX 11/30/08

On its face, the U.S. government won last week when a federal jury in Dallas convicted the Richardson-based charity Holy Land Foundation and five former leaders of providing financial aid to a foreign terrorist organization – Hamas.

But a Fort Worth defense attorney who has been involved in the case since 2005 called the prosecution shameful and compared the 42-day trial to some of the darkest days in American history.

Attorney Greg Westfall, one of eight lawyers on the case, sat in his downtown office Wednesday – two days after the guilty verdicts had been handed down on all 108 counts – and looked dejected.

After years of silence because of a gag order in the case, Westfall was ready to talk.

He began by pointing to a published story in which Richard Roper, U.S. attorney for the Northern District of Texas, was quoted as saying, “This is a great day in the United States. We will not tolerate those who fund terrorism.”

“A great day for the United States?” Westfall asked rhetorically and emphatically. “Yeah, like Dred Scott was a great day for the United States. Like the ‘Red Scare’ was a great day in America.”

(Dred Scott was the 1857 Supreme Court case that declared no slave or descendant of a slave was a citizen of the United States and, therefore, had no right to sue in federal court.)

The case involving what I call “The Holy Land Five” was one in which the U.S. government spent years and millions of dollars to convict the charity leaders on conspiracy charges. The first trial ended in a mistrial last year, but prosecutors vowed to pursue it.

“This was a trial based on fear and prejudice,” Westfall said, adding that President George W. Bush had “set the tone for this day by using words like ‘Islamic fascists.’ ”

For example, he said, “In the 1940s we rounded up several thousand Japanese, just because they were Japanese. Ten years later, we had the ‘Red Scare’ that ruined lives – that killed the Rosenbergs. And here we go again.”

In pandering to racial and religious prejudices, Westfall said, the prosecution depended on people accepting the stereotype that “Muslim equals Islamist equals terrorist.”

“Do we as Christians want to be judged by Eric Rudolph blowing up abortion clinics?” he said. “If we as Christians don’t want to be judged by that, then we probably should not judge all Muslims because of Osama bin Laden.”

While avoiding criticizing the jury, Westfall did not hesitate to condemn “the way the case was presented and allowed to be presented – by the judge and the government – to the jury.”

It was based mainly on guilt by association, he said, including associations with groups that have never been proven to be “terrorists” or supporters of terrorism.

The Holy Land Foundation generally gave to zakat committees that supported charities, including orphanages, in the Middle East. The government shut down the organization in 2001 after the Sept. 11 attacks and then began the long crusade to convict its leaders by trying to tie them to Hamas, which the U.S. declared a terrorist group in 1995.

Westfall thought it out of line that the government published a list of about 300 unindicted co-conspirators, groups he said were considered by many to be mainstream organizations, like the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR).

“Any statements made by anybody on that list could be held against our clients,” he said.

The attorney said the government also produced items from a search warrant of someone’s home in Virginia, and went so far as to present documents, seized in a military operation, that the defense was not allowed to see.

“We were barred from seeing them or an index of what was there, and [the prosecution] introduced them through an unnamed Israeli soldier who was not present when the documents were seized,” he said.

In addition, there were other “unsigned and unauthored” documents retrieved in a raid of the Palestinian Liberation Organization and introduced as evidence, he said.

“It was all tied together by an Israeli secret agent who didn’t have to give his name,” Westfall said. “He testified as an expert – was allowed to testify at length without us knowing who he was. Do you realize what power that is? If you don’t have to give your real name, you can’t face perjury – you get a free pass.”

He added, “If the president of the United States had testified in this trial, he would have had to give his name. In this trial, we gave an Israeli secret agent more power than we would give the president of the United States.”

The attorney said prosecutors tried to link the nonprofit organization to terrorists when in reality it was simply a faith-based group supporting charities whose leaders often talked about the occupation of the Palestinian territories.

“The Holy Land Foundation was a faith-based organization that just happened to be the wrong faith,” he said.

The case will be appealed. When asked what chances he thought he had, Westfall said:

“I think it gets reversed – hope springs eternal. I think in the end –and it may take way too long – America gets it right. We just have to go through this over and over again.”

Because prosecutors argued that the defendants have still been raising money and, therefore, pose a threat to the country, the judge ordered them jailed while the case is on appeal.

I’m on record saying that this case was more about religious bigotry and political pressure than facts. And I believe, like many others, that the Holy Land Five are political prisoners, not terrorists.

As I left Westfall’s office, he repeated sarcastically, “This is a great day for America.”

Yes, indeed, a great, sad day for our country.

Bob Ray Sanders’ column appears Sundays and Wednesdays. Tel: 817-390-7775