Gripping Testimony in Trial of Arab Bank Payments to 'Martyrs'
BROOKLYN (CN) - The Arab Bank opened thousands of accounts and several new branches in the West Bank to process $99 million in payments to families, prisoners and people injured by so-called "martyrs" during the violent conflict between Palestinians and Israel in the early 2000s, bank employees said Thursday in Federal Court.
Calling it an "internal administrative reason" to open the accounts, Mazen Hamdan said in his pre-videotaped testimony that the bank "realized that there were going to be a large number of small amount wire transfers that would be incoming" from the Saudi Committee for the Support of the Intifada al Qud, which is accused of paying families of suicide victims through accounts held at Arab Bank.
"There was going to be a number of them for a duration, for an amount of time, about a year. And then the beneficiaries can withdraw the money at their convenience from these accounts," Hamdan said.
The bank circulated advertisements in Palestinian newspapers "informing people that such payments will be delivered in the Palestinian Territories, and some of them even mentioned Arab Bank," Fazwan Shukri said in his testimony.
It was the third week of testimony stemming from a 2004 lawsuit filed in Brooklyn Federal Court by American families who accused the bank of acting as "paymaster" to pay families, victims and prisoners of Hamas-sponsored attacks in the war-torn region.
It's considered the first civil lawsuit to reach trial in the United States that accuses a bank of bankrolling terrorism.
Assad Muhammad Abbas Sa'id Saleh, the bank's head auditing operations, testified in videotaped testimony that from 2001 onward, he never researched who the so-called terrorist organization was.
Paperwork pored over by the witnesses showed the jury and U.S. District Judge Brian Cogan that the bank's branches kept a list of shahids - so-called martyrs, although not necessarily suicide attackers -- with 20,000 names on it, including the ways in which the person was killed or injured.
They ranged from "bullet in the chest" to "firing on an emergency vehicle," and "amaliyya istishhadiyya" or "self-martyrdom operation."
"I used to hear that expression from the media that used to ... describe criminal operations which including bombing activities," Saleh said.
He testified that he made those transfers involving the Saudi Committee without questions.
"I carried out my duties," he said. "These were correct wire transfers, proper wire transfers."
Attorneys presented Assad with a letter from the bank with the header, "Transfers of the Saudi Committee for Support of the Al-Quds Intifada."
The letter asks that the bank substitute 677 transfers to beneficiaries of 200 "martyrs."
The Saudi Committee for the Support of the Intifada Al Quds is alleged to have paid families of suicide attackers $5,300, often in American cash, and that Arab Bank turned a "blind eye" to the practice.
Families of prisoners received $2,655, while the injured got $1,300, attorneys said.
But DLA Piper attorney Shand Stephens, who represents the bank, said the bank had no way of knowing who it was paying when it doled out the money, nor did it have the decision to choose whom to pay.
The families sued for violations of the U.S. Anti-Terrorism Act, which allows victims of known terrorist groups to seek damages.
The United States tagged Hamas as a terrorist organization in 1997.