- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 21, 2002

CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) In a courthouse protected by federal marshals and a ring of concrete barriers, jurors were chosen yesterday 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. 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. Judge Mullen told lawyers at the lunch break to be ready for opening statements tomorrow.

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 attorney, Jim McLoughlin, said his client has no involvement with Hezbollah.

Hezbollah, labeled a terrorist organization by the State Department, 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 yesterday centered on whether they would be able to separate this case from the September 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."

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