Four Plead Guilty in Hezbollah Cigarette Smuggling Case

CHARLOTTE - Four men charged in a plot to funnel cigarette-smuggling profits to the militant group Hezbollah entered guilty pleas Monday, and three more defendants were preparing to do so.

Bassam Youseff Hammoud, Mohammed Atef Darwiche, Ali Hussein Darwiche and Mehdi Hachem Moussaoui entered their pleas at a hearing before U.S. District Court Judge Graham Mullen.

All four pleaded guilty to racketeering conspiracy, while Hammoud and both Darwiches also pleaded guilty to conspiracy to commit money laundering. Each charge carries a maximum sentence of 20 years in prison.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Ken Bell also filed plea agreements with two other defendants, Ali Fayez Darwiche and Angela Tsioumas, and said he was awaiting paperwork from one more, Sam Chahrour. Bell told Mullen last month that the three would plead guilty to racketeering. That leaves three suspects for the trial that starts April 15. They include Said Mohamad Harb, who is charged with providing material support to a known terrorist organization.

Harb, 31, a Lebanon-born naturalized U.S. citizen, and three other Middle Eastern men were charged last year with planning to provide Hezbollah with cash and supplies, including stun guns, blasting equipment, night vision goggles and mine detection equipment.

Harb's trial will be one of the first prosecuted under a 1996 law that forbids providing material support to known terrorist organizations. He is the only defendant indicted on the material support charges who is in U.S. custody; two of the other three have not been arrested and the third was arrested in Canada but never extradited. Harb, who has been held without bail since his arrest in 2000, could get up to 60 years in prison if convicted.

Two people who will go on trial with Harb do not face the material support charges. They are Mohamad Youssef Hammoud, who was originally identified by law enforcement officials as the group's ringleader. In court documents, he was described as well-connected to Hezbollah members in Lebanon.

The other defendant is Chawki Youssef Hammoud. Mohamad Hammoud is charged with racketeering conspiracy and money laundering, and Chawki Hammoud is charged with racketeering conspiracy. Both also face immigration charges. Moussaoui's lawyer, Calvin Murphy, said his defendant had nothing to do with "the Hezbollah-related charges." "He pleaded guilty to transporting cigarettes from North Carolina to Kentucky, where he was arrested," he said. "He doesn't have anything to do with the other stuff."