CHARLOTTE, N.C. – Two brothers were found guilty Friday of running a cigarette smuggling operation that sent some of its profits to the terrorist group Hezbollah.
A jury convicted Mohamad Hammoud, 28, and his 37-year-old brother Chawki in a scheme that involved buying cigarettes in North Carolina and resold them in Michigan without paying Michigan's higher taxes. Mohamad Hammoud admitted the scheme on the witness stand, while his brother's lawyer claimed Chawki Hammoud had no role in the operation.
But the smuggling was only half of the story. The smuggling ring, jurors found, was operating as a support cell for Hezbollah, a Lebanese militant group designed as terrorist by the U.S. State Department.
The Lebanon-born brothers were found guilty of membership in the cell, and Mohamad Hammoud, who prosecutors accused of being the cell's leader, was found guilty of providing material support to Hezbollah.
Mohamad Hammoud faces up to 155 years in prison, and that maximum could be increased if U.S. District Court Judge Graham Mullen finds that Hammoud lied when he took the stand in his own defense. Chawki Hammoud faces up to 70 years.
Prosecutors said that the brothers gained permanent resident status in the U.S. through sham marriages and after arrival set up the smuggling ring, which operated out of Charlotte.
Evidence linking the brothers to the terrorist group included propaganda found in their homes and wiretapped conversations.
Defense attorneys said, however, that the evidence suggested the opposite. Deke Falls, Mohamad Hammoud's lawyer, said a Hezbollah operative would probably try to avoid detection, a goal exactly the opposite of his client's open ideological support of the group.
Falls also said Mohamad Hammoud's sympathy for Hezbollah was natural for someone who grew up in a country torn by civil war and the strife resulting from the 18-year Israeli occupation that ended in May 2000.
The events leading to the trial began in July 2000, when 18 people were arrested on smuggling charges. In April 2001, eight men — all Lebanese nationals — and one woman from the earlier group were accused of involvement in the Hezbollah cell.
Seven defendants pleaded guilty, including Said Harb, who was charged with providing material support to Hezbollah. Subsequently, prosecutors indicted Mohamad Hammoud and several other men who are still at large.
In addition to the smuggling ring, Mohamad Hammoud was found guilty of raising money for Hezbollah at prayer meetings and of sending $3,500 to a military commander of the terrorist group in 1999.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.