Friday, June 18, 2004 at 8:31 AM
After a trial much shorter than most observers expected, the leader of Ohio's largest mosque has been found guilty of charges that he lied about links to terrorist groups when he applied for naturalization. Imam Fawaz Damra is now facing the loss of his citizenship and deportation, as well as jail time. The government says Damra's conviction is a victory in the war on terrorism. But for his supporters and the members of his mosque, it's a time of pain and confusion. ideastream's Karen Schaefer covered the federal trial in Akron.
Fawaz Mohammed Damra heard the verdict without flinching. But his stoney expression hid an anxiety that was evident just hours before as he held hands and prayed with his wife Nasreen and a circle of supporters from Cleveland and Akron. The jury was out less than five hours deliberating the complexities of a case it took the government nearly a decade to assemble. After only two days of prosecution testimony, jurors convicted the 41-year-old Palestinian native of lying on his application for citizenship a decade ago. Damra was also found guilty of inciting persecution of Israelis. Cherie Krigsman, a U.S. Attorney from Washington, D.C., assisted in the prosecution.
Cherie Krigsman: I think the evidence in the case showed that he had solid and long-standing ties to an international terrorist organization that is engaged in the murder of civilians, has disrupted the peace process, and has resulted in the persecution of Jewish folks and other people in Israel for a long time.
The government's case against Damra was built on testimony from FBI agents and officials from the former Immigration and Naturalization Service who interviewed Damra while investigating Palestinian terrorist groups with branches in the U.S. They testified to Damra's own admissions of association with leaders of the Palestinian Islamic Jihad. The PIJ was designated a terrorist organization by the State Department in 1995, nearly a year after Damra became a citizen.
James Moroney: The tapes were an important factor. We're very pleased with the results.
But perhaps the most damning evidence was a series of videotapes depicting Damra raising funds at conferences hosted by the Islamic Committee for Palestine, a group Damra himself identified as the active arm of the Palestinian Islamic Jihad in America. Members of the jury were visibly shaken by one scene of young children waving banners and shouting "Death to Israel." Federal prosecutor James Moroney characterized Damra as a charismatic fundraiser for terrorists.
James Moroney: As the tapes showed, he made his appearances and then his role was to raise the money, to close the deal and get the money.
But the verdict shocked many who watched Judge James Gwin throw out large portion's of the government's case in pre-trial hearings. And supporters were hopeful after the judge struck a third allegation that Damra had failed to list a dismissed assault charge on his naturalization form. Jad Humeidan is executive director of the Ohio chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations.
Jad Humeidan: From everything I saw the last few days being in this courtroom, I was sure that they would find the imam not guilty.
Many supporters believe jury members found it difficult to place Damra's more inflammatory comments in the context of the Palestinian conflict. Some viewed Damra's conviction as an attack against the wider Islamic community. Raoof Ali Muhammed heads a mosque in Akron. Fawaz Damra officiated at his wedding.
Raoof Ali Muhammed: He's being charged with terrorism because of 9-11. And he's been associated with terrorism because they say they were Muslims that done that. And we just automatically have to be terrorists. And by allegations, they're also saying I'm a terrorist, too.
Many members of the Islamic Center of Cleveland, where Damra is spiritual leader, believe they are under siege. They say they're afraid to make phone calls, use computers or credit cards for fear of triggering an investigation into their own activities. But mosque elder Haider Alawan says the community still supports its imam.
Haider Alawan: He's still our imam. And there'll be concern out there in what's to take place over the next few weeks. But he's still the imam and we still love him. And we're upset.
Alawan admits the next few months will be painful for the Islamic Center's one-thousand faithful worshippers. Damra could lose his citizenship at his September 9th sentencing. And he, his wife, and two children could be deported after he serves a prison term that could last five years. Defense attorney John Cline has yet to announce he's filing an appeal. But it's clear the fight to clear the Cleveland imam is far from over.
John Cline: We want to say that we respect the jury system, we respect this jury. We're obviously disappointed by the verdict. And we're going to continue to fight to exonerate Mr. Damra.
Yet more could be in store for the popular Islamic leader, who is still praised for reaching out to other local religious groups. Prosecutors won't talk about the possibility that future allegations against Damra could be pending. But earlier this year, U.S. attorneys revealed that the FBI and Joint Terrorism Task Force have been investigating Damra for crimes including tax evasion, money-laundering, and providing material support to foreign terrorist organizations. In Akron, Karen Schaefer, 90.3.