CHARLOTTE, N.C. – A Lebanese man accused of illegally sending money to Hezbollah took the stand Friday, testifying he was sympathetic to the group but wasn't its leader here.
"Was there ever a Hezbollah cell here in Charlotte, operating out of your house?" defense attorney Deke Falls asked Mohamad Hammoud.
"No, sir, that's not true," Hammoud replied.
Hammoud said that had he been a member of Hezbollah — designated a terrorist organization by the U.S. State Department — he would not have been so open about his sympathy for the group.
"If I am Hezbollah, I'm not going to tell you I am Hezbollah or do anything to make you think I'm Hezbollah," Hammoud said. "Everyone knows my faith, everyone knows my sympathy. ... I wasn't hiding that."
Mohamad Hammoud, 28, and his brother, Chawki Hammoud, 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 smuggling ring 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 foreign terrorist organizations by the State Department.
On cross-examination Friday, Assistant U.S. Attorney Ken Bell went through the prosecution's case in detail, asking Mohamad Hammoud to explain letters, taped telephone calls and testimony that indicated he was heavily involved with Hezbollah.
In several instances, Hammoud said that translations from Arabic were inaccurate or that a witness must have misspoken.
In earlier testimony, Hammoud denied asking a key prosecution witness to take $3,500 to a military commander of the Lebanese militant group.
He denied testimony earlier this week from Said Harb, who said Hammoud gave him an envelope containing the money to give to Sheik Abbas Harake, a Hezbollah military commander, in 1999.
He also said Grand Ayatollah Mohammed Hussein Fadlallah, a senior Shiite Muslim cleric, was not in Hezbollah. Another prosecution witness identified Fadlallah as a Hezbollah spiritual leader.
"In fact, in the last few years, he has had conflict with Hezbollah," Hammoud said.
Asked by Falls about a letter found in his home urging a contribution to the Lebanese resistance to Israeli occupation, Hammoud said he never sent money.
Prosecutors finished their case against the brothers this week by playing taped phone calls, including conversations alleged to be between Mohamad Hammoud and Harake.
All other defendants in the case, which began with arrests in late July 2000, have entered guilty pleas. Several testified for the prosecution.
If convicted of all counts, Mohamad Hammoud could spend the rest of his life in prison. Chawki Hammoud faces a lighter sentence.