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Jury Hears Taped Calls in Smuggling Case

Crime: N.C. finishes arguments against brothers accused of aiding Hezbollah with cigarette profits.

June 14, 2002|From Associated Press

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Prosecutors wrapped up their case Thursday against two brothers accused of supporting a Lebanese guerrilla group with profits from cigarette smuggling.

Prosecutors played taped telephone calls for the jury, including conversations alleged to be between defendant Mohamad Hammoud and a senior Hezbollah official.

According to an English translation of the calls in Arabic between Hammoud and Sheikh Abbas Harake, Hammoud asks whether he can send a gun to Lebanon and wants Harake to put a scare into Hammoud's nephew.

"I want you to rough him up a little," Hammoud tells Harake, who agrees to help out after the nephew beat Hammoud's niece.

Hammoud, 28, and his brother Chawki, 37, are accused of operating a smuggling ring that took cheap North Carolina cigarettes to Michigan, where they were resold without that state's higher taxes.

The government says the operation was run by the Hammouds and others as part of their Charlotte-based Hezbollah support cell.

A 1996 anti-terrorism law makes it illegal to provide material support to Hezbollah and other groups designated as foreign terrorist organizations by the State Department.

Defense lawyer Deke Falls said Mohamad Hammoud wanted to take the stand in his defense.

"He is determined to exercise his constitutional right to testify," Falls said. "He is determined to tell his side of the story."

As the mostly Arabic phone conversations were played over courtroom speakers, jurors read English translations that scrolled on computer screens.

In many of the calls, Lebanese men living in Charlotte excitedly discussed Israel's withdrawal from their country in May 2000 and Hezbollah's activities.

In one call recorded May 22, 2000, a man known only as Kamal asks co-defendant Ali Hussein Darwiche, "They've withdrawn and the Hizb [Hezbollah guerrillas] went in?"

"Yeah, yeah, they went in.... The Hizb went in on them," Darwiche replied.

In a call five days later, Harake, who is in Lebanon, told Mohamad Hammoud, "I swear, all we're missing is for you to come and see this honor," apparently referring to the Israeli withdrawal.

Hammoud replies, "Yeah, yeah, we were burning up here on TV as we're seeing all these scenes, something that drives us crazy."

On July 11, 2000, Hammoud asked Harake whether the military commander would be able to retrieve a gun from the airport for him if he sent it to Lebanon by plane.

Harake also tells Hammoud: "Pray for us in New York on some skyscraper. Go up and you'll be a little closer [to God]."

After the prosecution closed its case, Falls called a handful of witnesses, including several members of Charlotte's small Lebanese community.

They said they attended Thursday night Muslim prayer meetings at Hammoud's home but were never asked to donate to Hezbollah, as several prosecution witnesses have testified.

Other defendants in the case, which began with arrests in late July 2000, have entered guilty pleas. Several testified for the prosecution.

If convicted and sentenced at the maximum level on all counts, Hammoud could spend the rest of his life in prison. Chawki Hammoud faces a lighter sentence.

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