Justice for the Holy Land 5 and all Palestinian prisoners

Justice for the Holy Land 5 and all Palestinian political prisoners
7 min read

Hebh Jamal

12 December, 2022
The imprisonment of Shukri Abu Baker and the Holy Land Five set a dangerous precedent for criminalising all support for Palestine in the US. Nearly two decades later, the call to free them and all political prisoners is growing, writes Hebh Jamal.
Hundreds take part in a rally to show solidarity with Palestinian political prisoners being held in Israeli prisons and around the world across from the Israeli Consulate in downtown Toronto, Canada, on 13 May 2017. [Getty]

On Friday October 28th, Shukri Abu Baker thought that he was going to die in one of the most dangerous prisons in the country.

After inhaling fumes from tear gas thrown at inmates from a correctional officer intended to break up a fight, Shukri’s lungs collapsed. Correctional officers initially refused to give him medical attention until his friends and congregants insisted - he was their only imam and counsellor.

“Who are my victims? Who did I hurt?” Shukri said in a conversation with his daughter while laying in his hospital room. “My life has been reduced to a man that stays in line all day to use the phone and shower.”

“I couldn’t be a good father or husband because I dared feed Palestinian children, but alas I am a danger to society,” he said.

Shukri Abu Baker was one of the founders of the Holy Land Foundation (HLF), a Texas-based charity aimed at supporting Palestinian refugees in Gaza. After being pressured by then Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, the George W. Bush administration came after the organisation and shut the charity down in December 2001.

In July 2004, Abu Baker was arrested along with Mufid Abdulqader, Ghassan Elashi, Abdulrahman Odeh and Mohammed El-Mezain. In 2008, Abu Baker was sentenced to 65 years for allegedly funding terrorism through the HLF.

In 2008, Nida Abu Baker, Shukri’s daughter, recalls hearing the guilty verdict in disbelief. She recalls the terrifying clicking of the chains that the officers placed on her father, and the paradoxical silence of the pact courtroom.

“You can’t do this, all they did was help children all over the world and this is how you repay them! He’s not an animal,” she yelled to Judge Jorge Antonio Solis. He threatened to arrest her.

“And that was that. My father was taken away and put in solitary confinement,” Nida told me.

Shukri’s case set a dangerous precedent for Palestinians and those engaged in pro-Palestine activism and charity work in the United States and around the world. It proved that all of his actions, even peaceful ones like setting up charities for refugee children, can be categorized as terrorism.

Advocating for his release, and the release of all political prisoners around the world linked to the Palestinian cause, is therefore a crucial part of the struggle for liberation.

From the start, the trial was a sham. The criminal proceedings that began in 2004 resulted in a hung jury. This was followed by a retrial in Dallas federal court, which commenced in September 2008. During this trial, testimony was provided under the pseudonym "Avi" by an Israeli intelligence agent, whose credentials the defence was not able to question.

“The law doesn’t apply as we know it and the facts don’t really matter. Even a right as basic and fundamental as the Confrontation Clause that we all believe we can rely on in this country—that you have a right to confront and cross-examine your accusers—was totally violated in both of the Holy Land trials and affirmed on appeal,” Shukri’s lawyer, Nancy Hollander said.

“And this was all in the interest of national security.”

Although he was charged with funding terrorism, the case was unable to prove a direct link between HLF and Hamas, the organisation they were accused of helping, which President Bill Clinton declared a terrorist organisation in 1995. The prosecutors claimed that civilian aid to Palestinians meant more resources for Hamas to attack Israel. Another accusation claimed that HLF encouraged bombings by providing welfare to the bomber’s children.

These were the kinds of unsubstantiated claims that cost Shukri his freedom. 

The US’s War on Terror has taken countless lives. Under that guise, they are able to categorise all Palestinians and their supporters as terrorists, and have taken yet another innocent man’s life.

It’s clear that President Bush was making an example out of Shukri, sending a message to all of us Palestinians: even your peaceful resistance is dangerous.

Palestinians have been surveilled by the New York Police Department since 2002 with the NYPD surveillance program. They mapped neighbourhoods predominantly occupied by what they call, “ancestries of interest,” which included Palestinians, American Black Muslims and 26 other nationalities and ethnicities.

Although the program was supposedly shut down, the last few years have seen a significant increase in attempts to crack down on Palestine activism with various tactics including censorship of speech in support of Palestine, disciplinary investigations and dismissals, false accusations of anti-Semitism, intimidation and smear campaigns, and attempts to criminalise support for the Boycott Divestment and Sanctions movement.

When I spoke with Shukri Abu Baker, he told me that he is not advocating for his condition in prison to change.

“I don’t wish this incident to become the focal point of my struggles. I am not trying to improve the conditions of my incarceration, rather I am challenging the very premise of my presence here,” Shukri said in an email response.

“Prison life is partly hell for me and partly fantasy for my opponents. The prosecutors wanted to make sure my family and I pay heavily for not toeing the line of bigotry against the Palestinians who were in dire need for humanitarian aid. They made sure I was housed 830 miles away from home where my family needed to make a 16-hr road trip to come and see me.”

Even when his daughter Sanabel was dying, Shukri’s non-contact visitations meant he could not even hug her. “She had to wheel her oxygen tank into the visitation room yet was unable to touch me.” During his incarceration, Shukri has lost his daughter, his father, all of his uncles, an aunt, a nephew and five of his very close friends in Dallas.

“I am in total isolation and total disconnectedness,” Shukri said.

Since his near death experience, activists across the country are revitalising the call to free Shukri and the remainder of the Holy Land Foundation Five, and they need your support.

A new campaign ignited by Within Our Lifetime, the Coalition for Civil Freedoms, and the Samidoun Prisoner Network has gotten the support of dozens of human rights organisations and activists, across the US and beyond.

“It is time to act,” said the Samidoun Prisoner Network in a statement. “These three men remain behind bars, locked away from their communities and loving families, and we demand their freedom, alongside the freedom of all Palestinian prisoners. Like the prisoners of the Black Liberation Movement, Leonard Peltier, Alex Saab and others, the Holy Land 5 are political prisoners of US imperialism.”

“My father is doing better now, but we are angry,” Nida said. “ This is not the first time he almost died because of the conditions of his incarceration. This is the second time and he thought he was gone. Who knows, if this happens a third time, we may actually lose him.”

“My father will not die silently without a fight. He will not die in prison.”

“Justice must prevail,” Shukri concluded in his email.

Hebh Jamal is a Palestinian American journalist based in Germany. 

Follow her on Twitter: @hebh_jamal

Have questions or comments? Email us at: editorial-english@newarab.com

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.

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