Memorial for Riad Hamad
|Riad Hamad, in a still from a video interview by www.freespeech.org|
More than three weeks after the body of a beloved middle school teacher was pulled from Ladybird Lake, a memorial will be held for the man whose life and death remain mysteries. The service is scheduled for 1 P.M. on Saturday, May 10, at the St. James Episcopal Church, 1941 Webberville Road in Austin.
When Riad Hamad’s body, bound with duct tape, was pulled from the water, the initial reaction was that a murder had occurred. But quickly–some say too quickly–the Austin Police Department said Hamad had likely bound himself to make his suicide look like a murder. Some questioned whether federal authorities had suggested to APD investigators that the ruling of “suicide” would make things easier for everyone. Court documents were released, which some local media insinuated showed that Hamad may have raised money for terrorists at best, or stole money from his beloved charities at worst.
Was Hamad the tireless fundraiser for Palestinian children? Or was he a thief? Or worse, a terrorist? Did he commit suicide?
Those who knew him well scoff at any assertions of wrongdoing on Hamad’s part. He was, they say, a wonderful and generous man who was sorely lacking in bookkeeping skills.
Yale University School of Medicine geneticist Dr. Mazin Qumsiyeh, who received his Ph.D. at Texas Tech, will be one of the speakers at Hamad’s memorial. He told the Gazette he had not yet prepared his memorial speech, but referred us to an article by Greg Moses, editor of the Texas Civil Rights Review.
Moses was one of few journalists to question the case the authorities had on Hamad. He said he was unprepared to answer Gazette questions on the case, but invited us to quote from his article on counterpunch.org: “The federal agent who asked for the search warrant works for the Joint Terrorism Task Force, and he sets forth a case of probable cause involving ‘an illegal fraud scheme through the use of non-profit organizations, false documents submitted via U.S. Postal Service, false documents transmitted via wire communications, the failure to file federal income tax returns for the years 1999 through 2003 and 2005, and tax evasion for the years 1999 through 2006.’ ”
Moses continued, “ ‘There is absolutely no probable cause that Riad Hamad had anything to do with terrorism. Some sizable cash payments were allegedly delivered via ATM to the occupied Palestinian Territories. But according to Google, the man named in the affidavit as the one who received those payments appears to be a well-known nonviolent activist. In fact, the affidavit says very little about where Riad Hamad spent his money.’ ”
Paul Larudee, a friend who may have been the last person to speak with Hamad, agreed with Moses. He told the Gazette, “Riad was almost an ascetic in terms of his personal needs and had no interest in stealing funds. He was a lousy bookkeeper, which opened the door to the search warrant. I told Riad that I thought they would never find enough for an indictment, but he believed that they would just manufacture whatever evidence they needed.”
Larudee added, “The court documents do not purport to show that Riad was stealing funds from his charities, only that there is cause for investigation. That’s why it only justified a search warrant and not an indictment–a very low standard of evidence. The FBI and IRS have investigated a half dozen or so Islamic and Palestinian-related charities. In only one case that I know of have they returned indictments, and even in that case they failed to get a single conviction. However, the investigations themselves, including seizure of equipment and records, assets, travel documents, etc., as well as the cost of legal and accounting counsel, have severely impaired the ability of these organizations to function. That is the definition of harassment.”
While many of Hamad’s friends will never believe Hamad took his own life, Larudee does believe it. He said, “I believe Riad planned his own death because he believed it was the only way to prevent suffering the fate of people like Sami Al-Arian and to prevent persecution of his family and the denial of his dreams for his children, such as his daughter’s medical career. He believed that the U.S. government would destroy them to reach him.
“The manner of his death was intended to fuel the speculation about conspiracy that is in fact happening now. It was his way of reasserting control and teaching people not to trust the authorities that he perceived to be persecuting him.”
Larudee disagreed with the assertion that the police were quick to point to suicide. He said, “The police were not in fact so quick to suspect suicide. Before the body was found, they suspected it, mainly because the family was also concerned that this might be the case. Before the body was found, I was doubtful, but when the car was found with the door unlocked and the keys and cell phone on the seat, I became convinced that we would not find him alive.”
Larudee feels that Hamad took care to see that the charity he co-founded, the Palestine Children’s Welfare Fund, was in good stead before he died. Said Larudee, “Evidence about Riad’s last moments, the preparations that he made to turn over access to everything belonging to PCWF, and his conversations about the way he perceived things to be happening all point to him taking his own life. I don’t believe that his family or close friends ever had much doubt. However, I don’t really want to discourage speculation, because it’s what he wanted and because I believe that there is an element of harassment in the investigation, and that its timing is also suspect.”
Larudee forwarded a copy of a letter Hamad sent to Attorney General John Ashcroft. It reads in part: “My neighbor came up to me few weeks ago and informed me that an agent from the Federal Bureau of Investigation called him again regarding some information about my activities and other personal matters. Mr. Frank R. specifically told me that the agent inquired about the kind of car that I drive since your agents cannot find any records of car ownership for me in Travis County or the state Texas. I was surprised to hear that from him since not even my closest friends know that I do not own a car or any property, fixed or mobile in the state of Texas or the United States. It was my choice at the age of forty to give up all material things and devote my life to something meaningful besides racking up dollars in my bank account.”
Friend Miriam Adams agrees that Hamad spent little on himself. She said, “Those who knew Riad well knew that he’d rather sleep in his car and skip meals than ‘waste’ any funds for a motel room. No one was more committed or justice-minded than Riad Hamad for children–especially those who exist in those wretched refugee camps. All I can say is that he was a sweet and passionately caring, committed soul who hated violence and struggled valiantly for this cause. I hope Riad can finally rest in peace, knowing that the work will continue.”
Ayman Suleiman is one of the Palestinian youths helped by Hamad. He told the Gazette, “I first met Riad when I was in Hutto.” Suleiman and his family were picked up by authorities and spent months in detention, awaiting deportation. “I was 16 at the time and I was about a month away from graduating early from high school, and going either Baylor med or SMU the next semester. That was what most bothered Riad and he had promised me that he will not only help get admittance to a medical university but will pay for my studies all the way through. I was brought to tears when I heard these words from him, for I was sure all the hard work and dreams of going to medical school had been shattered.”
Remembered Suleiman, “[Hamad] got me a laptop to help me with finishing high school (which was from his organization) and he would call a lot here to check out how the family was doing and if there was anything we needed. Words could never describe Riad and his actions–he was a true hero.”
Suleiman is one of those who will never accept the ruling of suicide. He said, “If there’s anything I do know it’s that Riad would never commit suicide. Why not? Because Riad was a very religious person. In Islam, suicide is something huge. Anyone who commits suicide in the Qur’an goes straight to hell. Why would a very religious man, who helps many children and people all over the world–with a very loving family and people all over the world that admire him–commit suicide?”
Perhaps the truth of Hamad’s life and strange death will never be entirely known. But what is known is that the man was beloved by many students and friends, and by those he helped. These friends and family hope that despite accusations of wrongdoing, he will be remembered as a peaceful man of charity.
– Oak Hill Gazette