Secrets and Lies: The Persecution of Muhammad Salah (Part 2)

VOL. 38


No. 1
P. 25
Special Feature
Secrets and Lies: The Persecution of Muhammad Salah (Part 2)

Among the handful of high-profile terrorism cases in which the U.S. government has failed to win convictions in jury trials, that of Muhammad Salah stands out. Like the cases against Sami Al-Arian, Abdelhaleem Ashqar, and the Holy Land Foundation, the case against Salah was built on the criminalization of political support for the Palestinian resistance. But while the Palestinian-Israeli conflict is at the core of all four cases, Salah’s, unlike the others, was primarily about Israel: the case was manufactured in Israel, the evidence on which it was based was generated in Israel, and its prosecution depended on close U.S.-Israeli cooperation at every turn.


Salah, a Palestinian-American Chicago resident and former grocer, was arrested in Israel in January 1993 while on a mission to distribute money to poverty-stricken Palestinians in the occupied territories. Accused of being a U.S.-based Hamas terrorist commander, he was interrogated by Shin Bet, tried before a military tribunal, and spent almost five years in prison in Israel. While the U.S. initially supported Salah and rejected Israel’s accusations against him, in January 1995 he became (while still in prison) the first and (to date) only U.S. citizen to be branded a “specially designated terrorist” by his government. Upon his return home in November 1997, he was one of the main targets of an intensive terrorism funding investigation, dropped in 2000 for lack of evidence but reactivated in 2002 in the wake of 9/11.


In this two-part exclusive report, Salah’s lawyers recount for the first time the details of their client’s labyrinthine case. Part I focused on the Israeli phase of the story, including the political context of Salah’s arrest, and the investigations and legal proceedings launched against him in the United States when he returned. In essence, part I laid the foundation for the trial to come, emphasizing in particular its complex legal underpinnings and implications as well as its importance as a “test case.” Part II focuses on the post-9/11 period that unfolded under the George W. Bush Justice Department, starting with Salah’s indictment in November 2004, continuing with the two years of contentious pretrial preparations and hearings, and ending with the trial itself. As in part I, the legal dimensions of the case are emphasized, as are the government’s maneuvers to advance new standards governing the admissibility of coerced confessions and secret evidence at trial and to manipulate other established principles of the U.S. criminal justice system.


This article deals solely with Muhammad Salah, but Abdelhaleem Ashqar, a former professor of business administration in Virginia, was his codefendant at trial. Both were indicted, along with twenty other coconspirators, for participation in a fifteen-year “racketeering conspiracy” to “illegally finance terrorist activities” in Israel and the occupied territories, as well as for several lesser charges. The two men had never met before the trial opened in October 2006. Despite the common charge, their cases were very different and went forward in parallel fashion, with different lawyers, witnesses, arguments, and entirely separate pretrial proceedings. When the jury trial ended in February 2007, both men were acquitted of all terrorism-related charges.


The U.S. war on terror launched in the wake of the 11 September 2001 attacks cleared the way for the GeorgeW. Bush administration’s pursuit of neoconservative foreign and domestic policy objectives already on the drawing board. The tragedy also served to extend and deepen the U.S.-Israeli partnership in the U.S.war on terror, both at home and abroad. Within this context, the government’s prosecution of Muhammad Salah—a test case meant to demonstrate how bedrock constitutional principles governing the admissibility of coerced confessions and secret evidence at trial, closed courtrooms, and  cross-examination rights could be stretched in the post-9/11 era to make U.S. trials resemble Israeli military tribunals in the occupied territories—is an outstanding example of a U.S.-Israeli joint venture in the legal realm.


Salah and the “Financial War on Terror”


Within weeks of 9/11, the 500-page Patriot Act, which greatly expanded domestic surveillance and prosecutorial powers while strengthening financial controls on funds that could be construed as supporting “terrorism,” was ready for presentation to Congress, and was signed into law on 26 October 2001. But already on 24 September 2001, the less visible “financial war on terror” had been declared by President Bush, who vowed to launch “a strike on the financial foundation of the global terror network.”1 The main targets were the Muslim charities claimed to constitute a “significant source of terrorist financing.” Almost immediately, the Treasury Department began naming the charities as “Specially Designated Global Terrorists” and closing them down. Most prominently, the Holy Land Foundation (HLF), the largest Muslim charity in the United States, was closed and its assets were frozen in December 2001. … [click “Buy” to purchase and read full article]


MICHAEL E. DEUTSCH AND ERICA THOMPSON are lawyers with the People’s Law Office in Chicago, which has been representing political activists, political prisoners, and victims of government repression and police misconduct and brutality since 1969.