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Trial Linked to Hezbollah Casts Shadow

Law: Gloom pervades nascent Arab American community in Charlotte, N.C., after the conviction of a Lebanese man for aiding a terrorist group.

June 25, 2002|JEFFREY GETTLEMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — With Al Jazeera blaring on TV, trays of baklava sweating on the countertops and pictures of Beirut beckoning from the walls, Cedarland Deli is Charlotte's little window on the Middle East.

But lately, the view has been kind of gloomy.

"Wrong, wrong, wrong," seethed waiter Khaled Jhish as he scooped up a bowl of hummus Monday. "What's happening around here, with all these investigations and questions and Arabs going to jail, is wrong. It makes everybody look bad."

Last week, two Lebanese-born brothers were found guilty of running a cigarette smuggling ring here. One of them, Mohamad Hammoud, also was convicted of funneling cash to Hezbollah, a Lebanese group that the State Department says is a terrorist front.

Hammoud is the first person to be convicted under a controversial law prohibiting "material support" to an outlawed group, and his fate has frightened many Arab Americans, who often send money to charities back home.

It's also touched nearly everyone in Charlotte's nascent Lebanese community. In an investigation that took nearly two years and netted 18 suspects, FBI agents cornered families in butcheries, searched many homes and tried to play friends and business partners off one another. For many Arab Americans here, it was yet another humiliating moment in the wake of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

"We couldn't even go to the trial to show our support," said Sam Hariri, a Lebanese American. "We were terrified."

Hammoud, a 28-year-old who was born in Lebanon and came to the United States 10 years ago, said he was sending money to a charity. The government said he was helping terrorists.

Across the country, at least a dozen people face the same charge, including American Talib John Walker Lindh and Zacarias Moussaoui, accused of plotting as the "20th hijacker" in the Sept. 11 attacks.

The law was enacted in 1996. But some experts say it's especially tricky applying it now--and one judge just threw it out.

"Because of Sept. 11, we have to be very vigilant, " said Eric Davis, a Middle East scholar at Rutgers University. "But how far will we take this? Are we going to say people can't give money to victims of the Iranian earthquake because that country has been labeled an axis of evil?"

In Los Angeles, a federal judge dismissed a case Friday against seven people accused of raising money for an Iranian opposition group. The judge ruled that the State Department's procedure for designating the group as a terrorist organization is unconstitutional.

It is not clear how that decision will affect Hammoud's chances of appeal.

The status of Hezbollah, which the State Department branded a terrorist organization in 1997, is particularly ambiguous.

Like the Irish Republican Army, Hezbollah--or Party of God--is part political group, part guerrilla army.

Hezbollah leaders hold seats in Lebanon's Parliament and run hospitals and schools. But its fighters, backed by Syria and Iran, helped drive Israel out of southern Lebanon and were thought to be behind the 1983 bombing of the U.S. Marine barracks in Beirut that killed 241 Americans.

Hammoud grew up middle class, left Beirut in 1992 and arrived in the United States seeking asylum. While his papers were being processed, he took a job at a Domino's pizzeria in Charlotte, where he met his wife. She made pizzas. He delivered them.

"My husband always appreciated this country," his wife, Angela Tsioumas, said in an interview Monday. "He didn't want to harm it."

A few years ago, Hammoud started buying cigarettes from North Carolina wholesalers, where the tax is 5 cents a pack, and trucking them to Michigan, where the tax is 75 cents. He got rich off the profits from the illegal trade, the government said, and even opened a $1.2-million service station.

Government agents said Hammoud also provided money and equipment such as night-vision goggles to Hezbollah.

He was arrested in July 2000 with 17 others, including his older brother, Chawki. Many of them cooperated with authorities, including one former business partner who agreed to testify that Mohamad Hammoud gave him $3,500 to take to Hezbollah officials.

In May, the trial against the Hammoud brothers opened in an intensely guarded federal courthouse in Charlotte.

Prosecutors steadily built a case about the illicit cigarette sales and immigration violations, establishing that Mohamad Hammoud was married to three women at the same time in a doomed bid for U.S. citizenship. He didn't dispute this.

Defense lawyers focused on the Hezbollah charge against Mohamad. They argued that by banning donations to Hezbollah, the government was depriving him of his 1st Amendment rights to freedom of speech and religion.

At the end of the trial, Mohamad Hammoud took the stand, saying he loved America.

Jurors quickly convicted him and his brother of the cigarette and immigration violations. They convicted Mohamad of aiding a terrorist group Friday. He could face life in prison.

Most people at Cedarland Deli followed the twists and turns even if they didn't feel comfortable in a courtroom full of FBI agents.

"Maybe those guys were breaking the law," said Hariri, a de facto leader within the 500-member Lebanese American community here. "But the whole thing kind of makes you feel conspicuous."

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