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US victims say Arab Bank bankrolled families of suicide bombers; bank says it followed rules

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Gary Osen, an attorney for the plaintiffs in a case against Jordan-based Arab Bank, talks with reporters outside federal court in the Brooklyn borough of New York, Thursday, Aug. 14, 2014. Families of about 140 American victims of two dozen terror attacks in Israel, Gaza and the West Bank during a Palestinian uprising from 2001 to 2004 went to court in an effort to force Jordan-based Arab Bank to pay for allegedly helping Hamas finance a

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Gary Osen, an attorney for the plaintiffs in a case against Jordan-based Arab Bank, talks with reporters outside federal court in the Brooklyn borough of New York, Thursday, Aug. 14, 2014. Families of about 140 American victims of two dozen terror attacks in Israel, Gaza and the West Bank during a Palestinian uprising from 2001 to 2004 went to court in an effort to force Jordan-based Arab Bank to pay for allegedly helping Hamas finance a "death and dismemberment benefit plan" for martyrs. (AP Photo/Richard Drew)

NEW YORK, N.Y. - A large Jordan-based bank funneled tens of millions of dollars to the families of suicide bombers and terrorist operatives with ties to Hamas during a deadly Palestinian uprising from 2001 to 2004, lawyers for American terror victims said Thursday at a federal trial in Brooklyn.

The funds were distributed over the counter in cash to relatives of dead bombers at Arab Bank branches in the West Bank and Gaza by bank officials who "knew these neighbours of theirs were evil and criminal people," attorney Tab Turner said in opening statements.

Arab Bank attorney Shand Stephens countered by telling jurors that Arab Bank had followed regulations requiring it to screen transactions against lists of known terrorists compiled by the U.S. and European officials and none were flagged. The bank, he added, was following the instructions of an organization run by the Saudi government, the Saudi Committee for Supporting Al Quds Intifada.

"The Arab Bank did not choose who to pay," Stephens said. "The Saudi Committee did that."

The civil case is the first time a bank has faced a trial under the Anti-Terrorism Act, which allows victims of U.S.-designated foreign terrorist organizations to seek compensation. The U.S. State Department designated Hamas a terrorist group in 1997.

American victims in two dozen attacks in Israel sued in 2004, accusing the bank of knowingly helping Hamas finance a "death and dismemberment benefit plan" for martyrs. Their lawyers on Thursday alleged that the Saudi Committee had used Arab Bank's offices in Jordan and New York to convert donations into U.S. currency before they were distributed to Hamas sympathizers.

The plaintiffs used flat screens in the courtroom to display a record of an electronic transfer naming Hamas founder Sheikh Ahmed Yassin and a list from a bank file of people designated for $5,300 payments based on deaths from "martyr operations." They also cited the confession of the mastermind of two attacks who claimed the money for weapons had been transferred through the United States and into his private Arab Bank account.

Doing business with Hamas "wasn't an accident," said another plaintiff lawyer, Mark Werber. "It wasn't a mistake. It wasn't routine banking. It was a choice that Arab Bank made."

The defence said the transaction naming Yassin wasn't caught because his name was misspelled on the bank's terrorist watch list. It also described the payouts to martyrs by the Saudi Committee as a broad humanitarian effort aimed at helping any Palestinian harmed by the conflict.

"A martyr does not mean terrorism," he said. "It does not mean a suicide bombing. It means somebody who's dead. And that money is going to the families of people who died. ... No one got paid for being a suicide bomber."

The case had stalled in recent years as the bank fought demands that it turn over customer account information and other financial records, arguing that doing so would violate banking secrecy laws in Jordan and elsewhere. In 2010, a judge issued sanctions against the bank for its "recalcitrance" in withholding evidence — a penalty that would allow the court to instruct the jury that it could infer that it knowingly worked with terrorist organizations.

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