Eight suspects denied bail in Hezbollah-tied smuggling case

CHARLOTTE, N.C. - Eight defendants were denied bail Wednesday on charges they were involved in a cigarette-smuggling ring the government claims was raising money for the Islamic militant group Hezbollah.

U.S. Magistrate Carl Horn released two defendants on $50,000 bail each.

He noted that seven of those denied bail faced detention orders by the Immigration and Naturalization Service, the first step in deportation proceedings. Horn said he had no authority to override those orders.

He also denied bail to one defendant who was not subject to an INS detention order. A government affidavit ''puts you pretty close to the culpability ladder,'' Horn told Said Mohamad Harb, who was accused of arranging sham marriages to get around immigration laws as well as involvement in the smuggling ring.

The 10 were among 18 people named last week in criminal complaints alleging immigration violations, weapons offenses, money laundering and cigarette trafficking. Authorities say some of the profits went to Lebanon to support Hezbollah militants.

In addition to the eight denied bail in Charlotte, one person remained in custody in Michigan. The others had previously been freed on bail.

A special grand jury will consider indictments next week.

In an affidavit filed Friday, officials allege the suspects used sham marriages to get around immigration laws, then set up a smuggling business in Charlotte to buy cigarettes in North Carolina, which has a low cigarette tax, and sell them at a profit in high-tax Michigan.

None of the defendants are charged with engaging in any terrorist activities.

One of those denied bail was Mohamad Youssef Hammoud, identified in a federal affidavit as the group's ringleader. According to the document, he had received Hezbollah-sponsored military training.

Hezbollah issued a statement Saturday in Beirut that denied any involvement with the suspects.

Defense attorneys said their clients are being treated unfairly.

''There's a feeling in this country that everybody with dark skin who speaks Arabic has ties to a terrorist organization,'' said Leonard Kornberg, Hammoud's lawyer.

Horn granted bail to Angela Tsioumas, 27, a U.S. citizen who married Hammoud in 1997, despite Assistant U.S. Attorney Ken Bell's description of her as the ''financial linchpin in this case.''

''In our honest opinion, she won't stay around for a trial,'' Bell said.

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