tampabay.com

Funds went to charities, witness testifies

The father of a co-defendant in the Al-Arian trial says money from U.S. Islamic groups was honorably spent.

By MEG LAUGHLIN
Published November 1, 2005


TAMPA - Where exactly did the money raised by the defendants go? That's the question at the heart of the Sami Al-Arian trial. And that's the question that a witness for defendant Sameeh Hammoudeh tried to answer in federal court Monday.

Hammoudeh's father Taha Hammoudeh, 78, who came from the West Bank to testify, said his son sent donations from Islamic organizations in Tampa and Chicago to him. Taha Hammoudeh said he distributed that money to West Bank charities and got receipts between 1995 and 2003.

Prosecutors allege that Sameeh Hammoudeh, who has worked as a University of South Florida teaching assistant, produced phony receipts for charitable donations, which did not match with totals compiled by an FBI forensic accountant. They say the receipts were a cover for money sent to Palestinian Islamic Jihad for terrorist acts in Israel, the West Bank and Gaza.

But Taha Hammoudeh testified that tens of thousands of dollars in donations really did go to charity, and he furnished pink and green receipts to prove his point. The new receipts were entered into evidence.

An unexpected twist came midway through his testimony when he told about money from Tampa sent to the orphans of a man called Mukhtar, who he said lived in the Al-Amari West Bank refugee camp until 1995, when he was murdered by other Palestinians in the camp.

The reason, according to Taha Hammoudeh: Mukhtar had been a "collaborator for Israeli intelligence" and was murdered because he had turned in others in the camp, resulting in their arrests. But, said Hammoudeh's father, the Tampa Islamic groups, associated with Sameeh Hammoudeh and Al-Arian, insisted upon sending money to help his orphaned children, even though the father was part of Israeli intelligence.

"What were the children to do? They needed help," said Hammoudeh's father.

Sameeh Hammoudeh's attorney Stephen Bernstein said that this information was "very interesting" because it was the first time a witness has said that defendants helped the children of someone who worked for Israeli intelligence. Prosecutors have repeatedly said they believe defendants helped the families of those who killed Israelis, but, until Monday, there had been no mention of defendants also helping the family of someone killed for working for Israeli intelligence.

In the late afternoon, prosecutor Terry Zitek began cross-examination, asking Taha Hammoudeh if he knew how his son Sameeh made a living in Tampa, since he was not authorized by INS to work. The father said he knew his son had a scholarship and that he also helped him for a period, sending his son " about $1,000 a month."

"Beyond that, I don't know," said the father. "He's an adult. He's independent."

Hammoudeh, Al-Arian and co-defendants Hatem Fariz and Ghassan Ballut are accused of using Islamic charities as fronts in a conspiracy to finance terrorist attacks in Israel and its occupied territories.

Defense lawyers for Al-Arian and Ballut rested their cases last week without calling any witnesses. But Hammoudeh and Fariz are putting on witnesses in their defense this week.