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BEERSHEBA, Israel: An Israeli court on Wednesday found the former Gaza head of a major US-based NGO guilty of embezzling millions of dollars to radical group Hamas, six years after his arrest.
Israel had accused Palestinian Mohammed Halabi, who headed Gaza operations for World Vision, of siphoning-off millions of dollars to Hamas, which rules the Palestinian enclave.
He was arrested in June 2016 and indicted in August that year. Israel had refused to release him on bail.
Both Halabi and the charity have staunchly denied any irregularities.
But the Israeli district court in Beersheba on Wednesday convicted Halabi of belonging to a terrorist group — Hamas — and of financing terrorist activities, of having “transmitted information to the enemy” as well as the possession of a weapon, according to a summary of the ruling.
Much of the evidence against Halabi was kept secret, with Israel citing “security concerns,” prompting his legal team to question the verdict’s legitimacy.
Halabi’s lawyer Maher Hanna called the judgment “totally political,” saying it had “nothing to do with the facts” and that his client would appeal.
Sharon Marshall, senior director of public engagement for World Vision, expressed “extreme disappointment.”
“In our view, there have been irregularities in the trial process and a lack of substantive and publicly available evidence,” she said, adding that the NGO supported Halabi’s decision to appeal.
According to Wednesday’s ruling, “the accused played an active and significant role in Hamas activity and assisted Hamas for years in various ways, including through the transfer of money and materials which he knew would be used to finance terrorist acts.”
“The charges against the accused point to extensive financial support and information sharing with Hamas,” it added. But Halabi’s lawyer said some details of the allegations remained unclear.
“They can’t define what money was given and from where it was given and how much was given … from which projects, from which government, from where this money came to him and how it was given to Hamas,” Hanna said .
“Until today, Mohammed is asking me ‘did the judge say exactly what he accuses me of doing’?” he added.
Following Halabi’s arrest, the Australian government, a major donor to World Vision, announced it was freezing funding to projects in the Gaza Strip.
A subsequent Australian government probe found no evidence of embezzlement.
Omar Shakir, Israel and Palestine director at Human Rights Watch, said the ruling “compounds a miscarriage of justice.”
“Holding Halabi for six years based largely on secret evidence has made a mockery of due process and the most basic fair trial provisions,” he said in a statement.
Halabi “should long ago have been released. To continue to cruelly detain him is deeply unjust,” Shakir added.
Wednesday’s ruling was greeted by protests in Halabi’s native Gaza, while outside the courthouse in Beersheba, a small group of Israelis demonstrated in favor of the conviction, waving Israeli flags and yelling at Halabi supporters who were leaving.
On Tuesday the UN Human Rights Office had expressed “serious concerns” over the proceedings, in particular regarding the “lack of evidence.”
It cited “the widespread use of secret evidence” and “credible of ill-treatment in detention.”
Halabi’s sentencing is expected in the coming weeks.
World Vision is a US-based Christian charity with almost 40,000 employees globally.
It claims to be one of the largest NGOs in the world, with a particular focus on children.