CHARLOTTE, N.C. – In a courthouse protected by federal marshals and a ring of concrete barriers, jurors were chosen Monday for the trial of two men accused of helping run a cigarette-smuggling operation to benefit Lebanese militants.
Brothers Mohamad and Chawki Hammoud arrived at U.S. District Court in a closely guarded armored truck and courtroom spectators passed through two checkpoints, both with metal detectors to attend the trial. As many as a dozen marshals at a time were in the courtroom, while others stood outside with shotguns.
Lawyers and Judge Graham Mullen questioned prospective jurors for a trial that could take up to eight weeks, choosing four panelists by midday. Mullen told lawyers at the lunch break to be ready for opening statements Wednesday.
The government charges the Hammouds with taking part in a conspiracy that bought cheap cigarettes in North Carolina and resold them in Michigan without paying that state's higher cigarette taxes.
Mohamad Hammoud, 28, also is charged under a 1996 anti-terrorism law with providing material support to a terrorist group, the Lebanon-based Hezbollah.
He faces up to 10 years in prison on that charge. If convicted and sentenced at maximum levels on other charges — money laundering, cigarette smuggling, immigration fraud and racketeering, among others — he could spend the rest of his life in prison.
Chawki Hammoud, 37, faces lesser charges of cigarette smuggling, money laundering and racketeering.
On Friday, Chawki Hammoud filed papers pleading guilty to immigration fraud. His lawyer, Jim McLoughlin, denies that his client has any involvement with Hezbollah.
Hezbollah, labeled a terrorist organization by the State Department, led a guerrilla war against Israel's 18-year occupation of a border zone in southern Lebanon. The occupation ended with an Israeli withdrawal in May 2000.
The group is blamed for a number of terrorist attacks on the United States, including the 1983 bombing of the U.S. Embassy and a Marine barracks in Beirut that killed 241 American servicemen.
Authorities have never charged the Hammouds or any other defendants in the case with committing or planning violent or terrorist acts.
Much of the questioning of potential jurors Monday centered on whether they would be able to separate this case from their feelings about the Sept. 11 attacks.
One man was dismissed when he said that, after reading a newspaper story on the case, "It's almost like I could give a verdict right now."
The case began in July 2000, with arrests and charges linked to the alleged cigarette smuggling. It took a higher profile nine months later, when eight men — all Lebanese — and one woman were accused of involvement in a Charlotte-based cell of Hezbollah.
Said Mohamad Harb, who pleaded guilty in February, originally was the only defendant accused of providing material support to Hezbollah. He now is expected to be the government's star witness against Mohamad Hammoud.
Harb is expected to testify that, in September 1999, he transported $3,500 from Mohamad Hammoud in Charlotte to Sheik Abbas Harake, a Hezbollah military commander in Lebanon.