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In this together: Imam Sheikh Mohammed al-Hanooti. Photo by Mandy Crabtree

Stand by Your Imam

Local Muslims rally behind spiritual leader accused of funding terrorists

The local Muslim community is showing its support for Imam Sheikh Muhammad al-Hanooti after recent Federal Bureau of Investigation documents accused the spiritual leader of raising money for the terrorist group known as Hamas.

The Islamic Center of the Capital District, for which al-Hanooti is imam, took out a full-page ad in the Times Union last Sunday that condemned terrorism and stated that the community is deeply saddened by the recent media coverage of al-Hanooti because he has not been charged with a crime. “Although he has not been charged with any wrongdoing, recent articles have unfortunately indicted him in the court of public opinion,” the add reads.

Dr. Mohammad Ismail, president of the Islamic Center, said the local Muslim community was shocked when they first heard the accusation against al-Hanooti. “We had many meetings to discuss this because we are against terrorism and supporting terrorism,” said Ismail. “We are for this country and we are trying to help the local community.”

Before members of the Muslim community agreed to support al-Hanooti, Ismail said, the center’s board did some investigating on its own, which included a call to the FBI.

Ismail said that if al-Hanooti were involved with such a group, then the center would have asked him to relinquish his position at the mosque.

“We didn’t find any wrongdoing,” said Ismail. “I don’t think there is anything warranted at this time. He has not been charged with any crime.”

An article that appeared in the Times Union on June 30 reported on a classified FBI memo stating that al-Hanooti raised more than $6 million for Hamas while serving as the imam at a mosque in Jersey City, N.J., in 1993. Hamas has publicly claimed credit for numerous terrorist attacks and suicide bombings.

“I say that, first, nothing is true,” said al-Hanooti. “I have never been a fundraiser and never raised money for the Hamas. I would never support the killing of innocent children or elders.”

Many attendees of the mosque have said that al-Hanooti has never said anything that would suggest that he supports terrorist organizations.

“I have never heard this man speak against the government. Always he speaks out against terrorists,” said Mohammad Shakir. “Even with the situation between Israel and Palestine, I have heard him say that this conflict cannot be resolved by force.”

But the June article also said that a 1995 memorandum filed in federal court by former U.S. Attorney Mary Jo White names al-Hanooti along with a list of others as an “unindicted co-conspirator” of the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center. The FBI alleges ties between al-Hanooti and Sheikh Omar Abdul Rahman, the blind Islamic cleric who is serving a life sentence because of his foiled plans to blow up many New York City landmarks. And, it said, that the Jersey City mosque was a gathering place for some of the terrorists involved in the 1993 World Trade Center Bombing. Mohammed A. Salemeh, the man convicted of driving the Ryder van loaded with explosives that blew up the World Trade Center garage in 1993, was listed as a regular worshiper at the Jersey City mosque.

“They say that I knew this man and that I allowed him into my mosque,” said al-Hanooti. “I never allowed him to come in because I never approved of any of his thoughts. This was very well known in the community in New Jersey.”

Al-Hanooti said that he was interviewed by the FBI during the investigation of the 1993 World Trade Center bombing but no criminal charges were ever filed against him, and federal court files do not outline how he participated in any conspiracy. The FBI did not return calls for comment.

Ayman Nazzal, an adjunct professor of communication at the University at Albany, said that even if al-Hanooti was raising money for this group in the early 90s, as the FBI suspects, that does not necessarily mean that he was supporting terrorist acts.

The United States Department of the Treasury, he adds, did not deem this group a terrorist organization until 1995. Prior to that, Hamas was also known for the humanitarian work that it did for Palestinian children, such as raising money for food, education, medicine and shelter.

Ismail said that these recent events involving al-Hanooti have once again placed the Muslim community under attack. Days after the Times Union article ran, the mosque received threatening phone calls and closed its school for fear of retribution.

“It was really depressing for us all for a while,” said Ismail. “We knew this would really impact our effort to prove that we are here for this nation, this community and our neighbors.”

Al-Hanooti said that he is not sure where this information is coming from, but suspects that it could be because of his pro-Palestine stance on issues regarding the Middle East.

The 65-year-old imam, who was hired as the center’s spiritual leader a year and half ago, was born in Haifa when the city was part of Palestine. Since moving to the United States 25 years ago, he has married an American woman; they have four children.

—Nancy Guerin

Thou shalt not kill: David Kaczynski, executive director of New Yorkers Against the Death Penalty. Photo by Will Waldron

To Kill or not to Kill?

That is the question, in the wake of recent court decisions overturning executionsDarrel K. Harris has left death row, but controversy over his former residence lingers.

On July 9, the New York State Court of Appeals ruled that Harris, the state’s first death-penalty conviction since the statute’s 1995 reinstatement, couldn’t be executed due to unconstitutional plea-bargaining provisions encouraging defendants to waive their right to a trial. Though death-penalty advocates and court analysts saw the case as an opportunity to express an opinion on the death penalty itself, the justices focused on the legal mechanics of Harris’ trial.

“Instead of addressing the grand philosophical question of ‘the death penalty,’ the court chose to focus on the narrow legal issue,” said Vincent J. Bonventre, a professor at Albany Law School who follows the court. “We have a pretty conservative court that tends to decide cases on the narrowest, least controversial grounds. They didn’t have to question the death penalty here, but sooner or later they’ll have to.”

While many analysts and activists are waiting for New York to join other states, like Illinois and Maryland (both of which recently enacted death penalty moratoriums), in questioning the wisdom of capital punishment, others staunchly defend it.

“The death penalty is a just and appropriate punishment, as agreed by about 81 percent of the American people,” said Dudley Sharp III, resource director for the criminal reform organization Justice for All. “Living murderers murder again and executed murderers do not. It is as blatantly common sense as it sounds.”

Sharp said elementary sociology dictates the need for capital punishment; the potential for negative consequences will alter the behavior of potential criminals and deter them from committing violent acts. But David Kaczynski, executive director for New Yorkers Against the Death Penalty, said many studies state the opposite.

“Pro-death penalty people constantly state that the punishment will deter crime and save innocent lives, and this is a completely discredited argument,” Kaczynski said. “It’s misinformation. A review of the literature shows no evidence to support that the death penalty deters crime any more than a long-term prison sentence. This argument relies on the public being uninformed.”

Harris’ case was one in a rash of court decisions over the last month scrutinizing the death penalty. On June 20, the U.S. Supreme Court declared the execution of mentally retarded individuals unconstitutional, a violation of the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition of cruel and unusual punishment.

“The standards of decency have evolved,” Kaczynski said. “Up until just recently our country, along with Somalia, were the only two in the world still executing the mentally retarded.”

While Kaczynski pointed to the irony of the court’s decision in light of America’s foreign policy (noting that the countries supporting our “war on terror” have abolished the death penalty, while those nations we are targeting still practice capital punishment), Sharp was not satisfied with the court’s decision.

“The decision was horribly, awfully written because of their failure to establish any standards for the states to follow,” Sharp said. “This was very irresponsible of the court, and it just creates havoc with the system.”

On July 1, U.S. District Judge Jed S. Rakoff of Manhattan ruled that the federal death penalty is unconstitutional because of the large number of death row exonerations nationwide. Rakoff based his decision on a study by Columbia University professor James Liebman, which reported that between 1973 and 1995, 68 percent of death sentences were reversed due to error. Though anti-death penalty advocates see the judge’s decision as a step in the right direction, the Supreme Court ultimately will decide the death penalty’s constitutionality. But the 101 innocent people exonerated from death row since the death penalty was reinstated in 1976 is a number fiercely debated by Sharp.

“The number is an absolute and total fraud. The standards for putting people on that list didn’t differentiate between actual innocence and legal innocence,” Sharp said. “This must be the only time in the history of the media that a number has been so blindly accepted.”

But support for a national death penalty moratorium exists in studies with more conservative estimates, said Kaczynski. A January 1999 study prepared for Illinois Gov. George Ryan cited the innocence of 13 onetime death-row inmates in his state, presenting enough evidence for the governor to put off all executions in Illinois until the statute could be investigated further.

A spokesperson for Gov. George Pataki, under whose leadership New York’s death penalty was reinstated in 1995, said the governor still stands by the death penalty despite the recent rash of court decisions.

“We are confident the death penalty will withstand any legal challenges. Our law was carefully crafted and will be able to withstand the scrutiny,” said Pataki spokeswoman Jennifer Farina. “We continue to believe that the death penalty is a deterrent to crime and is partly responsible for the record low number of violent crimes.”

To Kaczynski’s chagrin, the July decision spoke not of the punishment’s effectiveness as a deterrent to crime, nor the alleged racist nature of many death sentences, nor how it puts a definite end to a defendant’s right to due process. The court chose to decide on the specifics of the recent case, and even the legal tweakings weren’t sufficient for Bonventre.

“The random nature with which the way the death penalty is applied from county to county is grounds for the statute to be questioned,” Bonventre said. “New York’s death penalty scheme allows each county’s district attorney unqualified discretion to seek the death penalty, so basically there are 62 different death penalty statutes in the state, one for each county. There is certainly good cause for a death penalty moratorium here in New York.”

—Travis Durfee

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