US judge calls mistrial in Islamic charity case

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DALLAS, Oct 22 (Reuters) A US District judge declared a mistrial today on most of the counts against an Islamic charity and several men linked to it who were accused of illegally funneling over 12 million dollars to the militant Palestinian group Hamas.

The prosecution immediately signaled it would seek a retrial in a case that the US government had viewed as part of its wider efforts to stop financing of terrorism.

But the complex trial's inconclusive end after three exhausting months and the fact that the few verdicts rendered were not guilty underscored difficulties in prosecuting such cases and making firm links between charitable and terrorist activities.

''You are at the end of your service in this case,'' presiding Judge Joe Fish told the jurors in a Dallas court before declaring a mistrial on the vast majority of the roughly 200 counts against the six accused, including the Holy Land Foundation itself.

The foundation was one of the biggest Islamic charities in the United States before its closure late in 2001 and said then that it focused on disaster relief and aid to Palestinian refugees. The mistrial will likely leave its status in legal limbo, making it difficult for its supporters to reopen it.

The judge had initially sent the jurors back to see if the impasse could be broken after a confusing scene when three of the jurors said they had not agreed with the verdicts he had read aloud to the packed courtroom.

They quickly came back and said that all but one of them had agreed that further deliberations would be fruitless. They had deliberated for 19 days.

The five men on trial were Shukri Abu Baker, Mohammad El-Mezain, Ghassan Elashi, Mufid Abdulqader and Abdulrahman Odeh. Two others also charged in the case are believed to be in the West Asia and are considered fugitives.

El-Mezain was acquitted of most of the charges against him but a mistrial was declared on one count while mistrials were declared for all of his co-defendants across the board.

One of mistrials involved Abdulqader after the judge initially read a verdict of not guilty on all 32 counts against him. But at least one juror signaled disagreement with the verdict that had been read in Abdulqader's case -- another indication of just how divided or confused the jury was.

VICTORY DECLARED FOR MUSLIM COMMUNITY The outcome was welcomed by supporters. ''It's a victory for the Muslim community because there was not one guilty count,'' said Khalil Meek, president of the Muslim Leagal Fund of America.

Around 20 supporters of the defendants stood in the rain on the street outside holding up signs which read ''Faith Over Fear And Justice For All.'' The Islamic community has said the case highlights the unfair scrutiny that US Muslims have been subjected to since the September 11 attacks and that it criminalizes legitimate charitable activities which are central to the Islamic faith.

The charges in the case included conspiracy to support a foreign terrorist organization, conspiracy to deal in the property of a designated terrorist group, money laundering and filing a false return for a tax-exempt organization.

In the complex set of charges which could have seen the men jailed for life, there were 36 counts. Of these 32 were applied across the board to all involved while four related to tax evasion only applied to Abu Baker and Elashi, Holy Land's former CEO and chairman respectively.

Elashi is already serving time because of 2005 convictions on federal terrorism charges for falsifying documents and making illegal shipments of computer equipment to countries the United States says are sponsors of terrorism.

Reuters AK VP0020

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