Jury hears arguments in terror finance trial

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NEW YORK (AP) — In a high-stakes legal offshoot of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, a U.S. jury was asked Thursday to decide whether executives at Jordan-based Arab Bank should be held responsible for a wave of suicide bombings in the early 2000s that left several Americans dead or wounded.

A lawyer for Arab Bank told the jurors in closing arguments at a civil trial in federal court in Brooklyn that the attacks were dictated by a historical cycle of violence that had nothing to do with how the bank does business.

The plaintiffs "have not shown you one bit of evidence that the bank caused these attacks to happen. ... These attacks have been going on there for decades," said attorney Shand Stephens.

Plaintiff lawyer Tab Turner countered by accusing the bank of misleading the jury about its business ties to Hamas by withholding the account records of the group's leaders and operatives.

"They're not interested in the truth," Turner said of the executives. "They're not interested in justice. They're interested in their pocketbook."

The civil case is the first time a bank has faced a trial under the Anti-Terrorism Act, which allows victims of U.S.-designated foreign terrorist organizations to seek compensation. The U.S. State Department designated Hamas a terrorist group in 1997.

American victims of the suicide bombings in cafes and buses in Israel and their families sued in 2004, accusing the bank of knowingly helping Hamas fund a "death and dismemberment benefit plan" for martyrs from the West Bank and Gaza. In more than a month of testimony, the jury heard Hamas experts and other plaintiff witnesses attempt to link extremists to Arab Bank accounts and detail how cash payments were funneled through the bank and into the hands of the families of suicide bombers.

Jurors also saw Arab Bank Chairman Sabih Al-Masri and other executives take the witness stand to deny the allegations. The defense sought to portray Al-Masri as a trusted banker whose own family had been victimized by terrorism and who opened branches in the Palestinian territories to help with rebuilding and humanitarian efforts — not to back extremists.

"There's not one word of testimony in this case that could lead you to conclude that any one of those people deliberately supported terrorism — not a word," Stephens said.

Stephens had Al-Masri, who was at the defense table on Thursday, stand up and asked, "Was that somebody who supported terrorism? ... Was it him?"

The defense also argued that people the plaintiffs identified as Hamas operatives who did business with the bank weren't on a terrorist watch lists compiled by authorities in the United States and other Western nations. The plaintiffs "are asking you to make your own list" based on the word of their experts, Stephens told the jury.

"The bank relies on the government to tell them who the terrorists are and you wouldn't want it any other way," he said.

Turner argued that the identities of Hamas leaders were so well-known in the region, it was impossible to believe that Arab Bank executives' testimony that they didn't recognize them. Before trial, the bank had refused to turn over the account records to the plaintiffs, citing privacy regulations — a decision that resulted in a court sanction instructing that the jury be allowed to infer that the withheld records could contain evidence damaging to the defense.

"What is it that the bank was so worried about they didn't want you to see it? They didn't want you to see who was giving who money and for what," Turner said.

The jury was expected to begin deliberating on Friday.

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