The North Carolina Tobacco Smuggling Case: Another Example of the Disparity of Justice in America

The North Carolina Tobacco Smuggling Case: Another example of the Disparity of Justice in America, Pt. 1

“Today Muslims are the most hated group in the country; the moment a Muslim is accused of a crime, the specter of terrorism is raised, and everyone panics.” – Bill Kunstler

The aforementioned quote of the late William H. Kunstler – from his book entitled My Life As A Radical Lawyer (publ.1994, Carol Publishing Group) – is a fitting entree into an examination of the drama playing itself out in the state of North Carolina.

Some of you reading this have no doubt heard something about the case involving 18 “suspects” alleged to be part of a cigarette-smuggling ring that, “raised money for Hezbollah” in Lebanon. A few days ago I was in North Carolina on a fact-finding trip and spoke with several persons about the case, including a Muslim leader in the Charlotte area; this was followed by a visit to a local library to do research on the media’s coverage of the case. The following report reflects the substance of my findings.

On Friday, July 21, 2000, federal authorities raided 18 homes and businesses in the Charlotte area and filed criminal complaints against 18 persons (17 in North Carolina and one in Michigan), charging them with immigration violations, weapons offenses, cigarette trafficking and money laundering. They are not all charged with the same offenses – for example, five women and one man are accused of marrying Lebanese citizens to help them gain lawful residency in the United States.

Hizbullah released a statement the following day in Beirut that denied any involvement with those arrested, and raised legitimate concerns about the motive behind the inflammatory and baseless allegations. The statement read: “The manner in which the report has been published and the charges brought against [the 18] clearly points to suspicious intentions and political goals that the American administration aims at achieving.” (Hizbullah has been accorded international recognition as having been the primary factor in ending the Israeli occupation of South Lebanon)

Meanwhile, Islamophobes have predictably weighed into the feeding frenzy, with the likes of Daniel Pipes being quoted in an Associated Press report published in THE NEWS & OBSERVER of North Carolina (“West becomes source of funds for terrorists,” 7/24/2000). An excerpt from this report reads:

“Daniel Pipes of the Philadelphia-based think tank Middle East Forum said there is little doubt that the Lebanese group Hezbollah, or Party of God, has turned to the United States as a source of cash as money from oil-producing states – Saudi Arabia, Iraq and Libya – has dried up. US authorities say the 17 people arrested Friday along with another man in Michigan, smuggled cigarettes and laundered money to help Hezbollah.”

It is worth noting that while Hezbollah has been repeatedly referenced in media reports as the primary recipient of the alleged profits from this tobacco smuggling operation (reportedly based on the “100-plus page affidavit used to obtain federal search warrants”) law enforcement officials, speaking for the record, have been quick to point out that none of the charges against those arrested involves any allegations of terrorist activities. Despite its being internationally recognized as a political organization, Hezbollah was placed on the US government’s list of terrorist organizations; and under the legislation passed by the US Congress and signed into law in 1996, aiding a known terrorist organization is a crime.

Is there a basis for these allegations

The FBI alleges that a cigarette cartel was organized for the purpose of buying cigarettes from North Carolina and shipping them (for sale) in Michigan where there is a tax differential of seventy cents. The investigation reportedly began in 1996 when Iredell County authorities noticed people with out-of-state license plates making large cash purchases from JR Tobacco (a discount tobacco outlet in Statesville).

According to reports, an FBI informant claims that one of the suspects arrested, Ali Fayez Darwiche, had delivered over a million dollars in profits from the US to Lebanon. This same “suspect” is alleged to be “well connected to members of Hezbollah,” while another “suspect” and reported ring leader, Mohamed Youssef Hammoud, is alleged to have received military training by the Muslim group. (In only one of the many reports did I read mention that Darwiche owned “a thriving painting business.”)

On Friday, July 27, a number of Arab-American organizations held a news conference in Charlotte to draw attention to the biased media coverage, and to complain that such irresponsible reporting has made life more difficult for peaceful and law-abiding Arab-Americans in North Carolina. “There is a stereotype of the Middle Easterner as a person who has the urge to go out and terrorize and hurt people. We are not genetically flawed; we are human beings,” stated Rajaie Queain, president of the North Carolina Chapter of the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee (ADC) in Raleigh.

While the office of US Attorney Mark Calloway sought to keep the suspects in custody until trial, I’ve been informed that all but one has been released on bond. This is a report that I need to confirm, however, given the fact that according to a July 27th Associated Press report (“Judge denies bond to 8 in cigarette-smuggling case,”) the Immigration and Naturalization Service has entered into the picture, with detention orders for a number of the “defendants” involved in the case.

I, like many of you reading this report, know so many people – Muslim and non-Muslim – involved with buying and selling things (i.e., clothes, publications, jewelry, etc.) that it never occurred to me that selling tobacco products across state lines without government sanction is a crime. Aside from this, however, information that I gathered in North Carolina lends credence to the official position taken by Hizbullah, “…and the charges brought against the 18 clearly points at suspicious intentions and political goals…”

Insha’Allah (God-willing), in part two of this report I will share the remaining information we’ve gathered, then you decide if the handling of this case by law enforcement and the media reveals the disparity of “justice” in America. – El-Hajj Mauri’ Saalakhan

The North Carolina Tobacco Smuggling Case: Another example of the Disparity of Justice in America, Pt. 2

“…One nation, under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.”

The concluding words to the pledge of allegiance, a daily ritual for millions of school children around this nation, still reflects the unredeemed check marked “insufficient funds” that the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., alluded to almost four decades ago, and remains an unfulfilled promise for the multitude of have nots of American society.

Far from being a nation of “liberty and justice for all,” America is a study in contrasts; a multi-tiered society where justice often means Just Us (the privileged few). There is the justice for blacks, and the justice for whites; justice for the rich, and justice for the poor; justice for immigrants, and justice for card carrying citizens of the state; justice for Muslims and justice for non-Muslims. This multi-tiered phenomenom is precisely what is at work in the case that erupted in North Carolina and Michigan on July 21, 2000. Can I prove it? Judge for yourself.

In his book entitled, My Life As A Radical Lawyer, the late Bill Kunstler observed: “Many of the beliefs and values that split the country in 1969 still divide us; there still exists a perpetual war between ‘them’ and ‘us,’ between the good guys and the bad guys, the inner city and the suburbs. We are a nation divided, torn apart by hatred, fear and poverty. I see my work as one small attempt to end the factionalism, heal the wounds, and move society toward dispensing justice, real justice, to everyone.

“In recent years, I have taken on many Muslim clients and have earned myself even more hatred and disapproval than for my representation of black defendants. Today Muslims are the most hated group in the country; the moment a Muslim is accused of a crime, the specter of terrorism is raised, and everyone panics.” (From the chapter entitled, “The Despised Muslim,” pg. 317) Now for the proof.

A federal grand jury in North Carolina recently ordered R.J Reynolds Tobacco Company in Winston-Salem to turn over documents involving a former subsidiary that pleaded guilty to international cigarette smuggling. Last year, Northern Brands executive Les Thompson pleaded guilty in US District Court in Syracuse, NY, to defrauding the Canadian government out of $72 million in taxes, and is presently serving a six year sentence in federal prison. Northern Brands paid $15 million in penalties.

Thompson also testified, according to a report in the August 19, 2000, edition of THE NEWS & OBSERVER [of North Carolina], that R.J. Reynolds “created Northern Brands to smuggle cigarettes, and that in 1993 the subsidiary averaged $1.3 million a week in profits.” RJR eventually made $100 million in total profit from the now defunct subsidiary, he said.

Canadian and US authorities began investigating the subsidiary more than four years ago for smuggling Canadian cigarettes meant for export back into the country (through an Indian reservation on the New York-Canadian border) to avoid high taxes. The Canadian government filed a $1 billion lawsuit against RJR last year, but the lawsuit was dismissed last month. Canadian officials said they will appeal.

A Study in Contrasts

There is a glaring disparity in the handling of the two tobacco smuggling cases by the media and law enforcement community. Widely reported “terrorist connections” are said to be the unofficial motive for the alleged smuggling operation involving the Muslims; while in the corporate smuggling case involving hundreds of millions of dollars, both the US Attorney’s Office and RJR have refused to discuss the case in the public domain. What scant coverage the latter case has received has been gleaned from court documents, with the media being far more circumspect in its reporting.

While there has been a rush to judgment, coupled by a no holds barred effort to ensnare as many persons in the net as possible in the case involving the Muslims, government prosecutors have exemplified a far more cautious approach with respect to RJR. A presumption of guilt juxtaposed against a constitutionally mandated presumption of innocence!

As stated in part one of this report, the Muslims were charged with immigration violations, weapons offenses, cigarette trafficking and money laundering – all are not charged with the same offenses. On my return to Raleigh I had an opportunity to meet with one of the Arab-American leaders who was involved in the July 27th press conference, Rajaie Qubain (of the ADC), and he informed me that the weapons charges proved to be bogus. Firearms which were initially confiscated and suspect were found to be licensed and legal; the weapons have since been returned to their rightful owners.

As for the “sham marriages” accusation, the basis for the alleged immigration violations, it will be interesting to see how this particular charge plays itself out. The grand jury returned a 36-count indictment against the 18 defendants, of which 34 counts charge violations of federal immigration and naturalization laws. The other counts charge conspiracy to launder money and to traffic in contraband cigarettes. Sentences on each charge range from six months, a $250,000 fine or both – to 20 years, a $500,000 fine or both.

It should be noted that while Hezbollah has been repeatedly referenced as the primary beneficiary of this alleged “cigarette smuggling cartel,” authorities speaking for the record have asserted, “None of the charges against those arrested in Charlotte involves any allegations of terrorist activities.” As in other cases involving Muslims, guilt by association appears to be at the heart of the US government’s allegations.

Ali Fayez Darwiche, the defendant reported to have sent more than $1 million from Charlotte to Lebanon during an 18-month period, is reported to have a brother “who is a well known Hezbollah leader.” And while this has been repeatedly stated in media reports, only once did I read that Mr. Darwiche also had a thriving paint business. Another defendant, Mohamad Youssef Hammoud, the alleged ringleader, is reported to have received “Hezbollah sponsored military training.”

Many lessons can be derived from a study of these two cases, revolving around the same core issue (tobacco smuggling) under the same legal jurisdiction. For Muslims, perhaps the most important lesson is the need for us to be always aware and vigilant concerning our rights and responsibilities (to ourselves, each other, and society as a whole). Coupled with this is the reminder that the “presumption of innocence” and “due process” didn’t begin with the evolution of western jurisprudence. We must act accordingly.