Israeli court convicts Palestinian aid worker after six years in detention

  • World Vision aid worker denies charges, plans appeal
  • UN human rights chief in Palestine expresses concern
  • Israel authority asks court to dissolve World Vision in Israel

BEERSHEBA, Israel, June 15 (Reuters) - An Israeli court on Wednesday convicted a Palestinian aid worker who has been detained for six years on Israeli charges he funneled tens of millions of dollars in relief funds to the militant group Hamas.

The Beersheba District Court found Mohammad El Halabi guilty of supporting a terror organisation but acquitted him of treason, judges reading out the verdict said. They set a sentencing hearing for July.

El Halabi, head of Gaza operations for World Vision, an international Christian aidgroup, was arrested in June 2016, accused of siphoning off up to $50 million to pay Hamas fighters, buy arms and fund the group's activities.

El Halabi has denied the charges and refused several plea deal offers. He has told Reuters the charges were "a set of lies" meant to target humanitarian work in Gaza.

Hamas, which governs blockaded Gaza, is designated by Israel and the West as a terrorist organization.

The full verdict was classified but the judges said their conviction centered on a confession by El Halabi, which they said was "detailed, coherent, with signals of truth and particular details." They said the confession matched details in other testimonies and evidence.

Sitting in a guarded court booth, El Halabi received the verdict through a translator. His lawyer, Maher Hanna, has denied El Halabi ever confessed and said he would appeal once the sentence is announced.

"I don't know what the court is basing its claim on," he told reporters. He said the judges' summary had "nothing to do with the evidence that was presented in court."

He said the state had failed to produce evidence on what projects El Halabi was supposed to have diverted funds from, which governments had donated the money, or how the aid was transferred to Hamas.

World Vision, which focuses on helping children, said an independent audit found no evidence of wrongdoing or of funds missing. It said that in the 10-year period El Halabi was employed, it budgeted around $22.5 million for operations in Gaza, making the amount El Halabi allegedly diverted "hard to reconcile".

World Vision spokesperson Sharon Marshall said the organisation acknowledged the verdict "with disappointment" and said it would support any appeal because it believed El Halabi was innocent.

International human rights organisations have criticised El Halabi's prolonged detention and trial. Human Rights Watch said the verdict "compounds a miscarriage of justice."

On Tuesday, the head of the United Nations Human Rights Office in Palestine, James Heenan, also expressed concern.

Widespread use of secret evidence, reliance on closed proceedings and credible allegations of ill-treatment in detention "paint a picture of enormous pressure on Mr el-Halabi to confess in the absence of evidence," Heenan said.

In Gaza, dozens of Palestinians gathered with posters of El Halabi to show support.

"This is a grave mistake and an injustice," his father, Khalil El Halabi, told Reuters. "My son is innocent."

In a separate case running parallel to El Halabi's trial, Israel's Corporation Authority (ICA), which oversees NGO activities, petitioned a Jerusalem court to dissolve World Vision in Israel, official documents obtained by Reuters showed.

The ICA declined a request for comment.

A 2021 review of the organization by the Department of Non-Profit Associations and Charitable Companies determined there were "serious flaws" in World Vision's activities that involved the transfer of funds to parties "known to be terror operatives", though the report did not provide evidence or elaborate on whether by "terror operatives" it meant El Halabi or others.

A judge is set to rule on whether to dissolve the organization in Israel later this month.

Reporting by Henriette Chacar in Beersheba; Additional reporting by Nidal al-Mughrabi in Gaza; Editing by Frank Jack Daniel and Deepa Babington

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