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Israel court convicts Gaza head of international NGO of embezzling $50M for funding Hamas – JURIST & More Trending News Today

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Israel’s Beersheba District Court has convicted international NGO World Vision’s Gaza manager of operations of diverting funds from the organization into Palestinian militant group Hamas.

Mohammad El Halabi was arrested and charged in 2016 with, among others, membership of a terrorist group, “[transmitting] information to the enemy,” and embezzling aid funding to the tune of USD 50 million over the span of a few years to finance Hamas’ military wing. On Wednesday, Halabi was convicted of 13 out of the 14 charges against him. Notably, the court found that he imported materials such as iron ore for Hamas, which has governed Gaza since 2007, to build tunnels.

World Vision’s work in Gaza has been suspended since Halabi’s arrest. Audits commissioned by the Christian humanitarian organization as well as by Australia’s Department of Foreign Affairs, being one of the NGO’s largest donors, found no irregularities in the disbursement of donated funds or evidence of Halabi’s involvement with Hamas. World Vision stated that its entire budget for Gaza in the previous decade was USD 22.5 million, its Jerusalem office handled large tenders for Gaza contracts, and it did not import any iron ore into Gaza or purchase there. Following the conviction, the organization called for a “fair and transparent appeal process based on the facts of the case,” citing “irregularities in the trial process and a lack of substantive, publicly available evidence.”

The evidence against Halabi and the ruling are both classified. Halabi confessed to Israel’s Shin Bet intelligence service but later rescinded the confession. He has maintained his innocence, stating that the confession was obtained under duress, but the court relied largely on this confession. Halabi refused to accept any plea bargains.

Since Halabi’s arrest, rights organizations have expressed fair trial concerns, including no access to legal assistance for the first weeks of his detention and denial of bail, along with secret evidence, and are calling for a retrial respecting his fair trial rights or release. Following the conviction, three UN Special Rapporteurs said that in order to extract the confession, Halabi was subjected to conditions that may amount to torture. They said:

Mr. el-Halabi’s trial demonstrated a serious disregard for fair trial guarantees, including the extensive use of secret evidence against him, restricted communication with his lawyer, inadequate time and obstacles posed for the preparation of his defence and the failure to try him without undue delay.

While indicating its support for humanitarian organizations, Israel’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs said:

Any diversion of humanitarian funds for terrorist purposes is a reprehensible act committed at the expense of the welfare of the Palestinian residents of Gaza. Israel will continue to use the tools at its disposal to prevent such crimes, and to hold Hamas and other terrorist groups accountable for perpetrating them.

Later this month a Jerusalem court will decide on the dissolution of World Vision’s operations in Israel. Last year the country designated six of some of the most prominent Palestinian rights groups as “terror organizations.”

Halabi plans to appeal his conviction following the sentencing, which will take place on July 10.

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