Jailed World Vision aid worker faces more charges, rejects plea deal

Mohammad El Halabi, the manager of operations for World Vision in Gaza. (Credit: World Vision International)

Israeli authorities brought new charges against an aid worker accused of funneling millions of dollars to Hamas.

Mohammad El Halabi, the World Vision operations manager in Gaza, was charged with “aiding and abetting the enemy in a time of war” and “passing information to the enemy” in addition to other terrorism-related charges, Agence France-Press reported.

In a court hearing on Thursday, Halabi turned down a plea deal of three years in jail, The Australian reported. He denied allegations that he diverted nearly $30 million in aid money from the World Vision to Hamas.

“I would like to assure my family I’m fine and I want them to know that I’m innocent of all these accusations. I’m the most innocent person ever,” Halabi said as he left court, according to The Australian. “Our mission was totally ­humanitarian, not terrorism.”

Shin Bet, Israel’s security service, arrested Halabi in June, and contend that Hamas recruited him more than 10 years ago to infiltrate World Vision. Halabi worked his way up through the organization to become a manager, which Shin Bet alleges, allowed him to funnel money meant for aid program in Gaza to Hamas.

World Vision officials immediately denied the allegations. They defended Halabi’s character, and said that audits and spending rules would make it impossible for him to divert so much money. He could only spend $15,000 at a time, World Vision officials said after his arrest. Additionally, the group spent roughly $22.5 million over the same period of time that Halabi is accused of diverted millions. Taken together, it is virtually impossible for the accusations to be true, World Vision officials said.

“Based on the information available to us at this time, we have no reason to believe that the allegations are true. We will carefully review any evidence presented to us and will take appropriate actions based on that evidence. We continue to call for a fair, legal process for Mohammad,” according to a statement.

World Vision and Amnesty International separately condemned the secret trial in late August. They said Halabi was denied his rights. On Thursday, the judge in the case agreed, criticizing the prosecution for not submitting all of its evidence and for adding new charges after holding Halabi for five months, according to the Australian Broadcast Corporation.

Despite the objection, the judge allowed the new charges. Halabi’s lawyers accused the prosecution of having a weak case and the added charges were evidence of an attempt to find a way to convict him. He is represented by Leah Tsemel who also helped defend Wahid Abdallah al Bursh, a U.N. aid worker convicted of unintentionally aiding Hamas.

Halabi will be back in court in early February. Court proceedings going forward will be public, according to the Jerusalem Post.

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Tom Murphy

Tom Murphy is a New Hampshire-based reporter for Humanosphere. Before joining Humanosphere, Tom founded and edited the aid blog A View From the Cave. His work has appeared in Foreign Policy, the Huffington Post, the Guardian, GlobalPost and Christian Science Monitor. He tweets at @viewfromthecave. Contact him at tmurphy[at]humanosphere.org.