Arab Americans Fear Backlash over Cigarette Smuggling Case
By Munir K. Nasser
Arab American organizations are expressing concern over a criminal case involving 18 Arab Americans indicted this week in North Carolina on charges of cigarette smuggling.
The 18 people were arrested last month on charges that include federal immigration and naturalization law violations, conspiracy to traffic in contraband and money laundering, according to the United States Attorney's Office in Charlotte, North Carolina.
Federal authorities also accuse the defendants of illegally transferring some of the proceeds of the alleged smuggling operation to the Lebanese political movement Hizbollah. However, no defendant has been charged with any crime related to the alleged materiel support to Hizbollah.
ADC: SUSPECTS ARE NOT LINKED TO HIZOLLAH
Arab American and civil liberties groups and defense attorneys have said that none of the suspects have ties to Hizbollah. They expressed concern that the defendants could be charged under a “dubious and possibly unconstitutional provisions” of the 1996 Anti-Terrorism Act that makes some forms of international humanitarian and political fund-raising illegal.
Hussein Ibish, Media Director at the American-Arab Anti-discrimination committee (ADC) said his organization is concerned about the negative publicity generated from this case against Arab Americans at large. He told Albawaba.com in an interview that the irresponsible allegations by the Federal authorities on this case have been blown out of proportions by the press. “ This proves yet again to be another instance where Arabs are arrested in the United States and immediately and prematurely are identified as potential terrorists,” he stressed.
Ibish said that it seems there are people at the prosecutor’s office and the FBI office in Charlotte who would want to indict the suspects under the provision of the 1996 Anti Terrorism Act, which have to do with providing material support to a designated foreign terrorist organization.
He stated that the prosecutors have not been able to establish any connection of these people with Hizbollah. “Their allegations are only rumors. The affidavit against them is filled with unsubstantiated claims and allegations that they basically used to get a search warrant to take away all their computers and documents. Since then, they haven’t been able to come up with anything,” he noted.
Ibish said that such charges would require the permission of the National Justice Department. He doubts, however, “whether the Justice Department would really want to get involved in that kind of thing after they have been burned in the past. They lost a lot of these cases and were widely condemned by Congress and the press,” he argued.
He said the way the case has been portrayed “is kind of ridiculous because they said they have reason to believe that there is a connection with Hizbollah,” he noted. “They have the whole press in Charlotte thinking that there is evidence that there is a connection with Hizbollah, which there is not.”
CRIMINAL RATHER THAN POLITICAL CASE
Ibish said the case has been treated as a criminal case so far, and not as international terrorism case.
“If such charges are brought, this case would be transformed from a fairly ordinary racketeering trial to a major civil liberties issue and an extremely important test of another provision of the notorious 1996 Anti-Terrorism Act, which initiated the current spate of secret evidence prosecutions,” he said.
“We and the other groups in the Coalition to Protect Freedom would definitely take an active role in assisting the defense on those charges,” Ibish said. “This would be a First Amendment violation, and we would try to make sure that this provision of law is struck down, because we feel very strongly that it is unconstitutional,” he explained.
He said ADC would continue to be involved in this case to monitor the coverage of the media for any anti-Arab bias. He noted that the press coverage in Charlotte “was horrible.” It showed some improvement, however, after he and other civic organizations visited Charlotte and talked to the media about it. “We have impressed very strongly on the local media that to just identify Hizbollah as a terrorist group with no qualifier is really buying into a rhetoric that is not defensible and very damaging to the Arab community.”
The press used to refer to Hizbollah as a Lebanese terrorist group, but now they say, ‘the alleged ring may be connected to Hizbollah, identified by the US government as a Lebanese terrorist group.’ “This is correct and reasonable, and we notice now a much better coverage,” he pointed out.
Ibish said it was important to provide support to the beleaguered Arab Community in North Carolina. Last week, Ibish and local community leaders held a press conference, which was heavily attended by the local media. ADC and the other organizations explained what was wrong with the coverage and the effect it was having on the Charlotte Arab-American community.
They also pointed out that the government was behaving in a highly irresponsible manner by making allegations not backed up by charges. They also explained at length how inaccurate the depiction of Hizbollah in the Charlotte media had been, especially the description of it as a “terrorist organization.”
The media, especially the local press in Charlotte reported the case as a ring of “international terrorists” and described Hizbollah in the most lurid and inaccurate terms.
One local television station repeatedly called the Hizbollah “a Palestinian separatist group,” and others described them as “the world’s most notorious killers.” The discourse from the government and press created a highly anti-Arab atmosphere in Charlotte, with implications implicitly cast against the entire community.
ARAB AND MUSLIM COMMUNITIES PROTEST
The Arab-American and Muslim communities in the Charlotte area which number over 7000 families of various national, religious and ethnic backgrounds issued a joint statement criticizing the “extremely biased and sensational media reporting on the issue.
The statement read in part: “Our communities are very disturbed by the misrepresentation of facts and the unwarranted tone that the media has conveyed to our neighbors, friends and co-workers by covering the recent cigarette smuggling arrests in a sensational and highly misleading manner. We view the lack of responsible journalism on the part of the media as very damaging to the Charlotte community.”
The statement said the media has been reporting completely erroneous information about Hizbollah. “One local TV channel, for example, repeatedly misidentified Hizbollah as “a Palestinian separatist group.” In fact it is a Lebanese political party that, pursuant to UN Security Counsel Resolution 425, liberated southern Lebanon from over two decades of illegal Israeli occupation.” – Albawaba.com
© 2000 Al Bawaba (www.albawaba.com)