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Holy Land Five: Rights groups, families demand release over 'miscarriage of justice'

Advocacy groups launch awareness campaign marking 14 years since the conviction of the Holy Land Five
Shukri Abu Baker is serving a 65-year prison sentence after being charged with "material support for terrorism".
Shukri Abu Baker is serving a 65-year prison sentence after being charged with 'material support for terrorism' (Courtesy of Nida Abu Baker)

A coalition of advocacy groups have called for the release of the Holy Land Five, a group of Palestinian-American men who were convicted of funding terrorism in a case civil liberties groups say highlights the disproportionate targeting of Muslim charities post-9/11.

The campaign launched on Thursday by Within Our Lifetime, the Coalition for Civil Freedoms, and the Samidoun Prisoner Network, comes as families of the accused marked the aniversary of their conviction.

"November 24th 2022 marks 14 years since the Holy Land Foundation 5 were wrongfully convicted and imprisoned in the US for the crime of sending food and medicine to orphans in Palestine," the Palestinian-led Within Our Lifetime said in a statement.

"Three of them remain imprisoned today. It’s time to bring them home," the group added.

The five men were arrested in 2004 on accusations that the Holy Land Foundation was both a terrorist organisation and was funnelling funds to Hamas, the Palestinian political movement designated a terrorist group by the US since 1995.

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While the first trial resulted in a hung jury, a second trial handed lengthy prison sentences to each on charges of "material support for terrorism".

Shukri Abu Baker, along with four other Palestinian-American individuals - Mufid Abdulqader, Ghassan el-Aashi, Mohammed Mezain and Abdulrahman Odeh - became known as the Holy Land Five.

"The last 14 years have been insanely hard for my family," Nida Abu Baker, Shukri Abu Baker's daughter, told Middle East Eye.

"He has had to go through that alone in his prison cell, feeling helpless. We've had family members die, family members born, all without him being here."

Abu Baker is currently being held in USP Beaumont, a high-security prison in Texas where deadly fights break out often - including one this year in which multiple inmates were killed.

'He almost died and I do not want this to happen again'

- Nida Abu Baker, daughter of Shukri Abu Baker

And just a few weeks ago, Abu Baker was severely injured after guards fired tear gas into the prison during a fight that broke out between several inmates.

Abu Baker's lungs were damaged as he fell unconscious and was rushed to hospital.

"He almost died and I do not want this to happen again. I'm not waiting for my dad to die for us to stand up and do something about this," Nida Abu Baker said.

Abu Baker and Aashi received 65-year prison sentences, and Abdulqader received a 20-year sentence. Mezain and Odeh each received 15-year sentences, and have since been released from prison.

If their sentences run their full length, the Abu Baker and Aashi families will have to wait until 2064 before they can see them as free men.

'They should be paid reparations'

Civil liberties groups have argued the case was part of a disproportionate targeting of Muslim charities, given that the charges were related to aid given to impoverished Palestinians via "Zakat committees".

The American Civil Liberties Union has said the Holy Land Foundation case was part of a pattern of the US government targeting faith-based charities "on the basis of unsubstantiated evidence and without even basic due process protections".

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None of the Zakat [charity] committees mentioned in the indictment were named on a US-designated terrorist list, and the government agency USAID was working with same Zakat committees - and continued to do so long after the HLF was shut down.

"We want to spread the word and let people know that there are innocent men sitting in jail and they need to be released now. We are demanding the release of the Holy Land Five," said Nida Abu Baker.

On 18 December, the Holy Land Foundation will be given the Sacco-Vanzetti Award for Social Justice by the Boston Community Church. The honour was named after Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti, two Italian immigrants who were executed in 1927 on charges of armed robbery and murder, after a trial that was seen as largely based on anti-Italian sentiment at the time.

Fifty years later, then-Massachussets Governor Michael Dukakis declared the trial unjust. But for the families and advocates of the Holy Land Five, fifty years is too long to be told what they already know - that they are innocent.

"Not only did they not do anything wrong, we're talking about the finest people you will ever meet," Miko Peled, rights activist and author of the book, Injustice: The Story of the Holy Land Foundation Five, told Middle East Eye.

"It's a terrible miscarriage of justice, it's beyond belief. These guys should be out and they should be paid reparations for the terrible injustice that was done to them."

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