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Terror funding case goes to jury

By: David Hanners
Tuesday, October 18, 2011

NewsinsideFor two hours and 57 minutes Monday, prosecutors and defense attorneys took turns at a podium telling a jury that the money Amina Farah Ali and Hawo Mohamed Hassan raised went to either a terrorist group or to orphans and the needy in their native Somalia.

But the bulk of the final arguments in the federal trial of Ali and Hassan came down to the Rochester women's own words, caught on an FBI wiretap on Ali's telephones.

All three sides - federal prosecutors, Ali's attorney and Hassan's lawyer - quoted from calls played during the two-week trial as either proof of guilt or substantiation of innocence.

A jury of 11 women and two men will sort out the evidence and decide.

After raising the specter of the 9/11 attacks and terrorism on U.S. soil, Assistant U.S. Attorney Jeffrey Paulsen told jurors the two Muslim women were on trial not because of their religion but because they broke the law when they sent money to a group the State Department has designated a foreign terrorist organization.

"This case is not about religious freedom," Paulsen said. "This case is about two people who deliberately formed a conspiracy."

But defense attorneys - who sometimes had to throw blame on the other's client - argued that both women were engaged in charitable fundraising. They also contended neither knew that what they were doing was illegal; before the February 2008 designation, it wasn't a crime to aid al-Shabaab.

"The government's theory is that everybody reads the Federal Register," Ali's attorney, Dan Scott, said of the government publication in which the designation was published. Prosecutors, he said, "have had three years...of analyzing her every word, her every movement, and they haven't proven their case."

Similarly, Thomas Kelly, an attorney representing Hassan, said the woman was involved in humanitarian fundraising for her former homeland, a country shredded by years of civil war, clan warfare, failed attempts at government and other ills.

"There's no evidence in this case that her humanitarian motives are false, insincere or a cover-up for her to do other things," Kelly told jurors.

Ali, 35, and Hassan, 64, are charged with conspiracy to provide material support to al-Shabaab, a group fighting Somalia's fledgling U.N.-backed Transitional Federal Government. Ali faces 12 additional counts of providing material support for allegedly overseeing $8,608 in international money transfers to the group between September 2008 and July 2009.

Hassan faces two counts of lying to the FBI in addition to conspiracy.

Testimony in the case ended Friday. Neither woman testified.

The case has drawn widespread attention in the Somali community, particularly among women, who have shown up in court in downtown Minneapolis in the past two weeks to support Ali and Hassan.

For the final arguments, spectators packed not only Chief U.S. District Judge Michael Davis' courtroom, but also the empty courtroom of another judge, where the proceedings were shown on closed-circuit television. There were no empty seats.

"This is a trial about two poor, innocent women who were helping their people," said Abdinasir Abdi of Minneapolis, who was among the spectators. "All Somalis are watching this. If we want to trust this government, we need to see these women go free."

Abdi was among the speakers who stepped atop a bench and spoke to people in the crowd who shivered in the wind on the plaza outside the federal courthouse after the jury retired to deliberate. He spoke in Somali and his speech seemed a stem-winder; several times, cheers rose from those gathered around him.

Afterwards, he said the situation in Somalia is "a very complex issue, a very complicated, complicated issue."

The final arguments painted the situation as one of Somalia's transitional government vs. al-Shabaab, a group trying to wrest control. The attorneys painted it as a matter of order vs. chaos but offered different views as to which group provided the order and which brought the chaos.

But Paulsen stressed that, in the end, all that mattered little.

"You're not here to decide who's right and who's wrong in the Somali conflict," the prosecutor told jurors in his rebuttal. The transitional government is the country's recognized government, he said, "and nothing we do and say here is going to change that."

Rather, he said, it was a simple matter of whether the women engaged in a conspiracy to provide money to al-Shabaab, an act that is against U.S. law.

"The law is al-Shabaab has been designated as a foreign terrorist organization, and it's illegal to give money to them, and they've been designated for a good reason," he told jurors. "Twenty years of misery is enough."

To prove the government's case on the conspiracy count, Paulsen and Justice Department lawyer Steven Ward had to prove that Ali and Hassan knew al-Shabaab had been designated a terrorist organization, or that they knew the group engaged in terrorist activity as defined by the Immigration and Nationality Act, or that they knew it engaged in terrorism as defined by the Foreign Relations Authorization Act of 1988 and 1989.

The bulk of the government's case came in the form of 91 phone calls, culled from 30,000 that the FBI recorded on a secret wiretap of Ali's phones over a 10-month period. All the calls played for the jury were in Somali, but jurors followed along with English-language transcripts that a team of five FBI linguists took several months to translate and compile.

Al-Shabaab controls much of southern Somalia. It has been waging guerilla war against the transitional government in the capital of Mogadishu. In part, al-Shabaab opposes the government because it believes it was orchestrated by neighboring Ethiopia, Somalia's longtime enemy.

Even the U.N. conceded "endemic corruption" in the transitional government, and some Somalis believe al- Shabaab has helped to bring order. But other Somalis, including some defense witnesses, have no affinity for al-Shabaab, which wants to institute what Paulsen said was an "extreme" and "medieval" form of fundamentalist Islamic rule.

Defense attorneys contended while Ali and Hassan had raised money for the poor in the past, the Ethiopian invasion was the "spark" that prompted them to raise money for orphans and the families of those they saw as fighting to defend their homeland.

Scott said Ali, a mother of two who also taught religious lessons, made little attempt to hide her fundraising.

"She is the whirlwind that put this together," Scott said.

"Amina Ali was giving money to the fighters, their families and the orphans of the fallen," he said. He contended that al-Shabaab troops were resisting the Ethiopians (and later the Ugandans and Burundians) and that the group provided order in a country that had been without it for nearly two decades.

Before trial, Scott and Kelly each had sought that their clients be tried separately. Scott argued that Hassan had made statements to the FBI implicating his client and that he would not be able to cross-examine her, while Kelly complained that the weight of the government's evidence was against Ali and that his client's case would be prejudiced by that.

Source: Pioneer Press


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