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NEW YORK (AP) — A U.S. jury found on Monday that a large Jordan-based bank should be held responsible for a wave of Hamas-sanctioned suicide bombings in the early 2000s that left several Americans dead or wounded.
Jurors reached the unanimous verdict in a terrorism financing lawsuit against Arab Bank after deliberating two days in at a civil trial in federal court in Brooklyn.
Plaintiff's lawyer Gary Osen said it's the first time a bank has been found liable for knowingly supporting a terrorist group.
"The question now is how the rest of the financial world, regulators and governments deal with Arab Bank," Osen said.
An attorney for the bank, Shand Stephens, predicts the verdict will be overturned on appeal based on "errors in admission of evidence, errors in jury instructions and errors in imposing sanctions."
The trial five-week trial only addressed the question of liability. Whether the bank should face damages will be decided by another jury.
"Obviously, this case is a long way from over," U.S. District Judge Brian Cogan told lawyers after dismissing the jury. "We have not finished our work here by a long shot."
The high-stakes legal offshoot of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict had pitted American victims of terror attacks in the early 2000s against an international bank with several branches in Gaza and the West Bank. The victims sued in 2004, accusing the bank of knowingly helping Hamas fund a "death and dismemberment benefit plan" for martyrs from the territories.
The civil marked the first time a bank had 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.
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. Evidence included bank records showing an electronic transfer naming Hamas founder Sheikh Ahmed Yassin and a list of people designated for $5,300 payments based on deaths from "martyr operations."
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.
"The Palestinians were suffering. Israeli people were killed. All these things were negative for society, for finding peace, jobs and the future," Al-Mari testified. "Business suffered. ... Suicide bombers destroyed the opportunity for peace."
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 in closing arguments.
"The bank relies on the government to tell them who the terrorists are and you wouldn't want it any other way," he said.
Plaintiff attorney Tab 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 bank.
"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.