|The complaint names individuals as ‘members’, ‘supporters’ or ‘operatives’ of the Lebanese political movement [EPA]|
The allegations span South American cocaine shipments, US-used car dealerships, money-laundering in West Africa, several money-exchange houses, and end up in a Lebanese bank.
In December the US justice department filed a civil claim [PDF] against certain assets both in Lebanon and in the United States in what is seen as the US government’s latest attack on Hezbollah, the Lebanese Shia political movement.
Following an inter-agency investigation said to have been conducted between January 2007 and early 2011, the US justice department claims to have uncovered “a massive, international scheme in which Lebanese financial institutions, including a bank and two exchange houses linked to Hezbollah, used the US financial system to launder narcotics trafficking and other criminal proceeds through West Africa and back into Lebanon.”
The in rem forfeiture complaint, filed in the district of New York with the aim of seeking almost half a billion dollars, is said to reveal “a trade-based money laundering scheme involving the purchase of used cars and other vehicles in the United States for shipment and sale abroad, with funds provided by banks, currency exchanges, and individuals associated with, funded by, controlled by, or directed by the Lebanon-based terrorist organization known as Hezbollah”.
The US is joined by Israel, Egypt, the Netherlands, Canada and Bahrain as designating it a “terrorist organisation”. The United Kingdom has only affirmed Hezbollah’s military wing to be such – while, until at least recently, it has been seen as a legitimate “resistance movement” in much of the Arab world. In Lebanon, it is one of the largest political parties, elected by the country’s voters. Today, it is part of a coalition of parties currently ruling the Lebanese cabinet.
With help from the US Drug Enforcement Agency, the DEA confirmed to Al Jazeera by email, certain Western media outlets wrote extensively on the investigation, sensationally detailing an intricate web of international terrorism tied in with drug deals, used car salesmen, and money laundering.
However a close reading of the 65-page forfeiture complaint [PDF] fails to provide concrete evidence of a Hezbollah-led operation aimed at procuring funds through money laundering.
According to legal experts, it is nothing short of a fishing expedition.
Joshua Dratel, a criminal defence lawyer based in New York, pointed out that filing it as a civil complaint rather than a criminal case immediately lowers the bar in terms of standard of proof necessary to prove the case.
“Some of their evidence may not be sufficient to meet the criminal standard,” Dratel – who has worked on several terrorism cases including the Holy Land Foundation case, and represented Guantanamo detainee David Hicks – told Al Jazeera. “A lot of it sounds like material not directly related to the people [named in the complaint] and the evidence is less than compelling.”
By filing a case in rem, the prosecutors do not have to demand the presence of individuals, but instead focus on certain assets, which Dratel pointed out was “very convenient in terms of getting assets without getting the people in court. It is part of a notion that you can sue a ‘thing’, which is a more difficult case to defend.”
Furthermore, it has been filed under Section 981, title 18 of the US Code of Laws, meaning for the government to win the case the Hezbollah connection is irrelevant. “They have to prove the other stuff, such as the money laundering and drug trafficking, in court, but the Hezbollah connection is immaterial,” explained Dratel. “Statute 981 has nothing to do with terrorism.”
Yet the document is presented in such a way that makes Hezbollah the focal point. “They spend 20-odd pages on Hezbollah but they never link it up to the specific conduct which they are trying to identify for [the] forfeiture of assets case,” said Dratel.
Barbara Harvey, a civil rights and union democracy lawyer, said this civil case may have been filed to gather evidence officials do not yet have.
“It could be seen as an attempt to gather evidence the government does not have for a criminal case,” Harvey, a former ACLU of Michigan legal director, told Al Jazeera. “By trying to defend themselves, the defendants may end up implicating themselves for crimes the government doesn’t now have enough evidence to prove.”
The missing link
The complaint alleges that the money garnered from trafficking drugs and the sale of used cars moves across the world to Lebanon, where it is then placed in certain exchange houses before the money is deposited in the Lebanese Canadian Bank. It also alleges these transactions are executed via “Hezbollah controlled entities”.
Rusty Payne, a spokesperson for the DEA, maintained there was little doubt about his agency’s operation.
“Yes, this was a Hezbollah-backed scheme involving the laundering of used car sales proceeds mixed in with cocaine trafficking revenue through the Lebanese Canadian Bank,” he told Al Jazeera. “We are very clear that these funds went to Hezbollah.”
Yet the evidence laid out in the complaint connecting Hezbollah with the Lebanese Canadian Bank through the money-laundering scheme seems tenuous, say lawyers.
“Certainly the government has produced – in this complaint and other cases – evidence that a substantial amount of money-trafficking and drug-trafficking is occurring these days, especially in Africa, and South America,” Dratel said. “However, there is a design here that is misleading, which is this is somehow hooked into terrorism, and the Hezbollah link looks coincidental rather than part of the design of the operation.”
“From the complaint, I don’t see this money being used to fund Hezbollah operations,” he said. “What it sounds like is that people are ‘associated’ with Hezbollah in some form or another, and that those people facilitated and participated in money laundering, and that is how Hezbollah is connected to it.”
“But that is it; there is no actual link of it going into the Hezbollah coffers.”
Harvey found the wrapping of drug trafficking charges in accusations of support for terrorism troubling. “Both the jury and the public will be more willing to convict because of the synergy of the accusations,” she said.
“Here we have people accused of laundering drug money who must be convicted because they are also accused of being linked to terrorism.”
“They hope to sway the jury because of links to ‘terrorism’ on US soil,” she said, adding that, while a defendant may deserve punishment as a drug trafficker, there is the danger that ignorance on the subject may lead him to being punished unjustly, acquiring the label “terrorist”.
What it takes to be a ‘member’
On numerous occasions the complaint highlights individuals as either being “members”, “operatives”, or “supporters” of Hezbollah, but fails to provide evidence of these alleged connections, or clarify what defines the characteristics of these terms.
“It is being deliberately vague with these terms because they don’t have anything to connect it to Hezbollah,” said Dratel. “When it talks of ‘associations with Hezbollah’, what does this mean? Some construction worker who helped in the reconstruction efforts following the 2006 war?”
On one occasion the complaint does go into detail of how one individual, Oussama Salhab, was a Hezbollah “operative”. “During a border inspection of a fingerprint-encrypted laptop Salhab carried with him, [Customs and Border Protection] officers found, among other things, images of Hizballah Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah; audio of the Hizballah anthem; images of Hizballah militants stomping on an Israeli flag…” it stated.
According to Amal Saad-Ghorayeb, political analyst and author of Hezbu’llah: Politics and Religion, the material found in Salhab’s possession only goes to prove he is not a member or operative of the movement.
“This is the best way of knowing they are not Hezbollah members,” she told Al Jazeera. Members would not compromise themselves “by actually carrying this stuff around”.
“These items are those of a groupie. A ‘member’ or ‘operative’ of the movement would definitely not be carrying anything on his persons that would associate him to Hezbollah,” she concluded.
When asked to highlight the differences between the labels, the DEA’s Payne replied that: “These are facilitators – individuals who are aiding and executing and carrying out these criminal activities. Some are associates, some are directly connected, others are layered.”
However, Ahmad Moussalli, a professor of political science and Islamic studies at the American University of Beirut, confirmed Saad-Ghorayeb’s point, saying such material does not equate to “evidence” of membership. “There are people who do not belong to Hezbollah, who admire Nasrallah,” he told Al Jazeera. “Having a picture is evidence of nothing except that he likes Nasrallah.”
“This is not considered to be evidence that he is a member, this is a non-issue.”
Saad-Ghorayeb went further, explaining there were fundamental differences between the way in which members act, and the way in which supporters act – but this is ignored or overlooked by US officials.
“The problem is that the West is still failing to understand the nature of Hezbollah,” she said. “It is a grassroots political and resistance movement.”
Dratel agreed, saying that Hezbollah is not an underground organisation, “therefore it acts in a formal way, it is involved in the political and socio-economic infrastructure of Lebanon, and interacts with all sectors of society there”.
The connection is ‘evident’
Michele Leonhart, DEA administrator, said at the time the complaint was filed, “DEA and its partners have exposed the Lebanese Canadian Bank as a major money laundering source for Hezbollah. The connection between drug traffickers and terror networks is evident. By attacking the financial networks of those who wish to harm innocent Americans, DEA is strengthening national security and making our citizens safer.”
Yet, as Prof Moussalli pointed out, there is a fundamental flaw with this statement, in that Hezbollah does not work within the Lebanese banking system.
“Hezbollah does not use the banking sector like the US portrays it does,” he said. “They pay their people with cash, they don’t need to have it in a bank. In fact, they are against the idea of ‘interest’ because of their religious ideals.
“They also don’t buy weapons; so in a sense what I’m saying is this case that is being created against them, it is a non-case, it is merely propaganda.”
For Saad-Ghorayeb, the purpose of such a claim is to tarnish Hezbollah’s reputation amongst the expatriate Shia population. “It’s an ill-conceived attempt by the US to delegitimise the movement, and alienate the Shia bourgeoisie,” she said. “They are trying everything in their power to undercut Hezbollah’s support, and it is futile.”
“I don’t think it will work, and so far it hasn’t worked. People will just be more circumspect in the future; supporters won’t carry around pictures, but it won’t necessarily stop them from supporting [Hezbollah].”
Prof Moussalli agreed, adding that a number of expats have already complained about being monitored and harassed, as the US government attempts to curb Hezbollah’s influence.
He concluded: “At the end of the day, this is a propaganda war; these allegations should not be taken seriously.”
Follow Nour Samaha on Twitter: @Samahanour