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Witness Insists Suspect Made Donations in Hezbollah-Cigarette Trial

 

Though he disagrees with a law prohibiting donations to the militant group Hezbollah, a native of Lebanon said countryman Mohamad Hammoud acted illegally by recruiting him to deliver $3,500 to a Hezbollah military commander.

"I think it's a bad law, but nevertheless, they broke the law," Said Harb said during cross-examination Tuesday at the federal court trial of brothers Mohamad and Chawki Hammoud, 37. "I still believe we have the right to donate to Hezbollah."

Harb, a co-defendant who testified for the prosecution under a plea agreement, said Monday that Mohamad Hammoud, 28, asked him to deliver the money during a 1999 visit to Lebanon.

A 1996 anti-terrorism law prohibits providing material support to groups the U.S. State Department designates as foreign terrorist organizations — a list that includes Hezbollah.

Hezbollah fought an 18-year Israeli occupation of southern Lebanon that ended in 2000. It has been linked to attacks on Americans, including the 1983 bombing of a Marine barracks in Beirut.

Federal prosecutors say the Hammoud brothers, Harb and others operated a Hezbollah support cell in Charlotte. They say the group's primary activity was smuggling cheap North Carolina cigarettes to Michigan, where they were resold without that state's higher taxes.

The brothers are each charged with cigarette smuggling, money laundering and immigration fraud. Mohamad Hammoud is charged additionally with conspiring to provide material support to Hezbollah and providing material support to the group.

If convicted and sentenced at the maximum level on all counts, Mohamad Hammoud could spend the rest of his life in prison. Chawki Hammoud, 37, faces a lighter sentence.

Lawyers for the men have said that while their clients may have sympathized with Hezbollah, they did nothing illegal to support the group.

Harb also testified that Mohamad Hammoud collected donations for the Lebanese resistance — understood to mean Hezbollah — at Thursday night Muslim prayer meetings at his Charlotte home in the late 1990s.

On Tuesday, Mohamad Hammoud's lawyer, Deke Falls, questioned whether his client would have given Hezbollah money to Harb since Harb hadn't attended a prayer meeting for several months before his trip to Lebanon.

Harb replied that he and Mohamad Hammoud still saw each other when they played basketball and did their banking. And he denied a claim by Falls that Mohamad Hammoud stopped speaking to him because Harb was running a Web pornography business.

While on the witness stand, Harb acknowledged running the pornography business and several credit card-related fraud schemes. Playing off that, Falls asked pointed questions about Harb's plea agreement, under which the government has agreed to try to bring Harb's family here from Lebanon and to recommend a relatively light sentence.

"How about the scam where you're going to get 6 to 10 years in prison?" Falls asked.

"Six-and-a-half to 8," Harb corrected him.

Asked by the lawyer whether his joking demeanor during his testimony meant he was enjoying himself, Harb said no.

"My main concern is the defendants," Harb said. "They're my friends. I don't enjoy doing this."

Also Tuesday, jurors began reading lengthy descriptions of phone conversations recorded by the Canadian Security Intelligence Service. Many conversations concern efforts by Mohamad Dbouk — a Canadian citizen described by prosecutors as a Hezbollah operative — to procure equipment for "the brothers" in Lebanon, including computers, night-vision equipment, global positioning systems and mine-detection equipment.

On Monday, Harb testified that he assisted Dbouk, a childhood friend, in his effort and gave him money to buy equipment.

Prosecutors contend that though the Hammouds were not involved in the procurement, it was part of a larger conspiracy to provide material support to Hezbollah.

In one transcribed conversation between Harb and Dbouk, Dbouk remarks that he "was committed to securing all the items for the brothers at any cost; he was attempting to avoid going to hell and to secure a place in heaven by so doing."

The court day was cut short after lunch, when a juror's daughter was hospitalized and the judge sent the jury home.