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Profile: Two Lebanese Men Found Guilty of Running A Cigarette Smuggling Ring That Helped Fund Hezbollah

Weekend Edition Saturday: June 22,2002

Hezbollah

SCOTT SIMON, host:

Here in the United States, two Lebanese men have been found guilty of running a cigarette smuggling ring that helped fund the militant group Hezbollah. A jury in North Carolina returned the guilty verdict, the first jury conviction every under a six-year-old anti-terrorism law. Prosecutors say the case sets an important precedent. NPR's Adam Hochberg reports from Charlotte.

ADAM HOCHBERG reporting:

The case against Mohamad and Chawki Hammoud began more than six years ago in a small-town North Carolina cigarette outlet store. It ended yesterday with a historic jury verdict. The two brothers were convicted of buying wholesale cigarettes at the outlet and then selling them on the black market in Michigan. While cigarette smuggling is not an unusual crime, jurors found this operation was part of a conspiracy to raise cash for Hezbollah in Lebanon. US attorney Bob Conrad says the conviction hampers the fund-raising ability of the group, which the State Department considers a terrorist organization.

Mr. BOB CONRAD (US Attorney): Our war on terrorism is, in part, a war on those financial networks that support terrorists. We followed the money and in the process dismantled a terrorist fund-raising cell.

HOCHBERG: Between them, the two brother were found guilty on more than a dozen criminal counts, including immigration law violations, money laundering and conspiracy charges. But the jury also convicted one of the two under a federal anti-terrorism law that's never been used in a trial before. The statute, enacted in 1996, makes it illegal to provide money or aid to groups the government has designated as terrorists. Conrad says 12 other people around the country now face charges under the same law, including two who are especially prominent.

Mr. CONRAD: John Walker Lindh and Zacarias Moussaoui, in the eastern district of Virginia, are likely to be the next defendants tried for violations of this statute. We intend to assist those effort in any way that we can.

HOCHBERG: The Hammoud brothers showed little reaction in the courtroom as the judge read the guilty verdicts. During the monthlong trial, the men admitted to immigration law violations, and one conceded he had smuggled cigarettes, but they denied they raises money for Hezbollah and said they had no connection to terrorism. Jim McLoughlin is Chawki Hammoud's court-appointed lawyer.

Mr. JIM McLOUGHLIN (Attorney): When you put that kind of effort into a lengthy trial, you are disappointed that your efforts didn't bear a little more fruit for your client. But we feel good that we put a significant effort into it and did the best we could.

HOCHBERG: At the beginning of the case, defense lawyers had worried their clients wouldn't get a fair trial because of their Middle Eastern heritage, but yesterday the Hammouds' attorneys commended jurors for the way they handled the case in three days of intense deliberations. The brothers are expected to appeal, but if the verdict stands, they could spend the rest of their lives in prison. Adam Hochberg, NPR News, Charlotte.

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