Arab Bank called Hamas 'paymaster' as trial opens in New York

NEW YORK Thu Aug 14, 2014 2:37pm EDT

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NEW YORK Aug 14 (Reuters) - Arab Bank Plc was accused of providing extensive and substantial material support to the Palestinian militant group Hamas, as a long-anticipated civil trial against the Jordan-based bank began on Thursday in U.S. federal court in Brooklyn.

"This bank served as the paymaster, the distributor of funds" that supported Hamas attacks, Tab Turner, one of the lawyers for plaintiffs told jurors during opening statements of a trial that was 10 years in the making.

Close to 300 U.S. citizens who were the victims or the family members of victims of 24 attacks allegedly carried out by Hamas in Israel and the Palestinian territories between 2001 and 2004 sued the bank in 2004.

They accuse Arab Bank of violating the U.S. Anti-Terrorism Act, which allows victims of U.S.-designated foreign terrorist organizations to seek compensation. The State Department designated Hamas a terrorist organization in 1997.

The case is believed to be the first civil court terrorism-financing case against a bank to go to trial in the United States.

Arab Bank has said it did not cause or provide material support for the attacks. The bank is based in Amman.

Lawyers for the plaintiffs said they would present evidence showing that Arab Bank maintained accounts for Hamas operatives and processed payments for the families of suicide bombers.

Shand Stephens, a lawyer for Arab Bank, called the 24 attacks "horrific" in his opening statements. "Our hearts go out to the victims," he said.

But Stephens said evidence would show the bank did not knowingly support Hamas.

Most of the people and organizations the plaintiffs claim were affiliated with Hamas, and who received banking services from Arab Bank, were not designated as terrorists by the United States during the period in question, Stephens said.

"In short, it's the government who decides who the criminals are," Stephens said. "That's not a decision that's made by private companies." (Reporting by Bernard Vaughan; Editing by Will Dunham)

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