The billionaire chairman of Jordan's Arab Bank testified Monday that violence and terrorism are bad for business as the bank opened its defense in a Brooklyn federal court lawsuit charging the bank let itself be used by Palestinian terror operatives.
"The bank is clean!" chairman Sabeh Taher al-Masri told reporters after his 90-minute turn on the witness stand. "The bank never did anything wrong, knowingly or intentionally."
Al-Masri, 78, also dismissed claims by 300 victims and their families that the bank should pay hundreds of millions in damages for processing transactions that enhanced the likelihood of 24 Hamas attacks during the anti-Israeli uprising from 2000 to 2004.
"They can claim what they want," he said. "What has the bank to do with those incidents?"
At the trial, the plaintiffs have said the bank encouraged violence by keeping accounts for alleged Hamas operatives and affiliates, and handling transfers from a Saudi Arabian charity to families of "martyrs" -- including both innocent victims and suicide bombers.
The bank -- the largest in the Mideast -- said it provided only routine services and complied with banking regulations, and almost none of the transactions at issue involved names listed on U.S. or international terror blacklists.
Testifying in English, al-Masri described himself as a moderate, westernized, Palestinian-born businessman who went to college in Texas, schooled his children in Boston and Washington, and had lived in France during periods of turmoil in the Mideast.
He said he hit it big as a young man by starting a company that provided food to the Jordanian army; later supplied U.S. troops in the Gulf War, Iraq and Afghanistan; and now owns interests in banks, pharmaceutical companies, hotels and other industries.
A bank director since 1998, he portrayed himself as a pragmatist, not a terrorist sympathizer -- telling jurors the violence that began in 2000 devastated both personal and bank investments in Palestinian territory made after the Oslo peace accords in 1994.
"The Palestinians were suffering, Israeli people were killed, all these things were negative for society, for finding peace, jobs and the future," he testified. "Business suffered. . . . Suicide bombers destroyed the opportunity for peace."
Al-Masri also noted that his brother was killed by terrorists after the Israelis named him mayor of Nablus on the West Bank in 1986, and several business partners and their families died in a 2003 suicide attack on his company's compound in Saudi Arabia.
"We have to work with Israel," he said. "We cannot be at war all the time."
Arab Bank has 6,500 employees at 600 branches in 30 countries and processes about a million transactions a day.
On cross-examination, al-Masri admitted that he joined the board because of success in other businesses, but knew little about proper banking practices or the details of the transactions at issue in the suit, such as transfers from the Saudi charity to the families of suicide bombers.
"It was never brought to the attention of the board," he said.