Complication in Arab Bank Terror Case

BROOKLYN (CN) - Arab Bank, accused of acting as "paymaster" to suicide attackers in the West Bank in the early 2000s, has hinted it may seek a new trial based on comments the judge made when a sidebar was requested.
     During trial on Aug. 29, attorneys for the bank objected to plaintiffs' attorneys questioning of terrorism expert Arieh Spitzen, claiming that he was being asked leading questions.
     When the bank's attorneys asked for a sidebar, the judge laughed and said, "Really? Is it worth it?"
     "The jury was visibly taken aback," Arab bank's attorney Shand Stevens wrote in a Sept. 2 letter to U.S. District Judge Brian Cogan.
     According to the letter, the judge agreed during the sidebar that the objection was legitimate, and said "OK. I will ask ... [plaintiffs' counsel] to phrase the question in a more neutral manner to draw the answer out rather than suggesting it."
     "But because the sidebar is not heard by the jury, the jurors heard only the court's response to the objection and not the court's subsequent agreement with the objection," Stephens wrote.
     Although Stephens' letter does not expressly seek a new trial, it states that courts must "preserve an atmosphere of impartiality and detachment," and cites Rivas v. Brattesani, which says that a new trial is required when a "'judge's impartiality [was] seriously called into question by his comments in front of the jury,' including comments directed at counsel."
     The bank was sued in 2004 in Brooklyn Federal Court by 300 family members and victims of Hamas-sponsored suicide attacks in the West Bank during the Second Intifada (uprising) between the terrorist group and Israel.
     The families say the bank acted as "paymaster" by turning a "blind eye" when it maintained accounts for senior-level Hamas leaders and paid families of suicide attackers.
     It's considered the first civil lawsuit to reach trial in the United States that accuses a bank of bankrolling terrorism.
     The bank's attorneys have maintained that the bank had no way of knowing whom it was paying when it doled out the money, nor did it have the decision on whom to pay.
     The families sued for violations of the U.S. Anti-Terrorism Act, which clears the way for victims of terrorist groups to seek damages. Hamas was branded a terrorist organization by the United States in 1997.