Grant clemency to my innocent uncle serving undeserved decades in prison
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In July 2000, I was a few months old when my uncle Mohamad Hammoud was arrested. As I grew up, I learned and read so many good things about him. He was very kind to his family, to his friends, and to those who knew him. Everyone I met who knew my uncle had something good to say about him. Then, I wondered, what did my uncle do to deserve all these years in prison? I will share with you what I have learned about my uncle's case with the hopes that you can join me in helping him get his freedom and go back to his family in Lebanon.
My uncle made mistakes: First, he violated the immigration law, so he could stay in our country, America, and not return to the poverty and war in his country, Lebanon. He had wanted his future children to be American and to grow up in America ... like me. He did not want his children to go through what he went through. As a young boy, my uncle witnessed only war, poverty, and death. When my uncle was 13, his father died, leaving the family in dire straits. My uncle did not have medical care or clothes of his own. Even a toy would have been a luxury.
The second mistake my uncle made was avoiding paying taxes on cigarettes that he sold to out-state customers. In 1996, after four years of living in America, going to college, working as a delivery driver for Domino's Pizza, and being married, my uncle was still unable to support himself or his family in Lebanon. Then, he learned that some Lebanese people were transporting cigarettes from North Carolina to Michigan in order to take advantage of the excise tax difference. In his early 20s, he was convinced it was a harmless way to generate more income to help himself and his family in Lebanon. Regrettably, he ventured into the business but quit two years later. My uncle and his wife obtained a bank loan and with their earnings invested in a convenience store gas station, which they ran.
One day in July 2000, while my uncle's mother (my grandmother) was visiting him, the FBI burst into my uncle's house. They woke up everyone in the house and arrested my uncle in front of his mother. As he was being escorted to a waiting car, his mother collapsed, but he was not allowed to help her. My uncle was informed by investigators that he was being charged with not paying excise tax on cigarettes (from two years prior) and immigration violations. On the day of his arrest, my uncle was questioned by authorities about things that he had no knowledge of. And, they told him that if he told them what he knew, they would let him call his mother, whom he left unconscious. My uncle was having a hard time understanding what was going on and why the authorities were doing this to him and his family. He knew many people who were arrested for cigarette transportation but none went to jail. Eventually, he discovered the reason why when an inmate let him read the newspaper. The article said that authorities arrested a Hezbollah cell, and its leader was my uncle! My uncle could not believe his eyes: even in America he could be arrested for something he did not do. Even though the media cast my uncle as a terrorist leader on the day of his arrest, he was not charged with Hezbollah related charges until after the tragedy of 9/11.
The government seized all my uncle's possessions. This left him with no money to retain a lawyer. To make matters worse, the court appointed a young defense attorney who had never tried a case before. His inexperience showed throughout the trial. The prosecution kept my uncle in jail while they spent years of extensive investigation to link him in some way to any violation related to Hezbollah (the organization that my uncle was accused of supporting and leading a cell of in North Carolina). But they could not. However, when the tragedy of 9/11 happened, the world changed, and my uncle's life changed forever. A person of interest by the name of Said Harb, who was my uncle's "codefendant," was facing a life sentence for many serious offenses. He seized the opportunity and signed a plea deal: The prosecution would reduce Harb's sentence to forty-one months in prison rather than life. They would also bring twelve members of Harb's family to live in America. Harb spent tens of thousands of dollars to bring his family to America but could not do it on his own. In return, Harb would testify that in 1999, my uncle sent two checks in the amount of $3,500 to a friend in Lebanon who was a Hezbollah member. There was no proof of this even though the prosecution subpoenaed all my uncle's financial accounts. There was no trace of these supposed checks.
On several occasions, my uncle offered the prosecution to interview him and to give him a polygraph test to prove that he was neither a Hezbollah member, nor that he had sent money to Hezbollah. Ironically, the prosecutor turned down my uncle's offers although my uncle supposedly was a Hezbollah cell leader and the first one ever to be charged under this law. Yet, the prosecutor was not interested "to learn how Hezbollah operates in America"! The prosecution offered my uncle a plea deal to admit his guilt and receive a sentence in the range of 7 to 20 years in prison. He rejected the plea offer, for he knew he did not send money to Hezbollah. Believing in our justice system, my uncle went to trial to contest the Hezbollah charges but was convicted and sentenced to 155 years.
After years of suffering, attorney James McLoughlin, who represented my uncle on appeal and resentencing, won my uncle's appeal and my uncle's sentence was reduced to 30 years, which was still wildly disproportionate. My uncle was the first Mohamad, the first Middle Easterner, and the first Muslim to go to trial on material support charges after 9/11. Consequently, his case became publicized and attracted media attention around the country.
Before I tell you how my uncle was convicted, I would like to share with you some authentic quotations that summarize my uncle's case: The first is an admission by Mr. Bell, the prosecutor, which clearly shows his motive in prosecuting my uncle: "I knew this was the case of a lifetime. It was a career maker," he told the author of Lightning Out of Lebanon (no wonder why Mr. Bell refused to interview my uncle and give him a polygraph test and why he quit his government job to work for one of the biggest law firms in Charlotte, North Carolina).
The second is by Appellate Judge Gregory, which unequivocally proves that there was no evidence that my uncle had sent money to Hezbollah: "The government admits that the only source of information indicating that Hammoud was sending money to Hezbollah was Said Harb. Mr. Harb was described throughout the trial as untrustworthy, manipulative, a liar, and an exaggerator - I have found no testimony in the record completing this chain that allegedly stretched from Hammoud to Harake [Hezbollah]."
The third is by District Judge Mullen, which demonstrates that no money was sent to Hezbollah's violent activity: "There was no proof he [my uncle] raised funds for violent Hezbollah activity ... it was not a crime of violence or a potential conspiracy to commit violence."
The Fourth is by Professor Hajjar, who served at the U.S Army college. His quotation was found on the internet in a monograph he wrote about Hezbollah: "No open convincing evidence exists that these groups [including my uncle and his friends] are cells organized and controlled by Hezbollah in Lebanon." Additionally, at resentencing, attorney McLoughlin subpoenaed Mr. Robert Baer. Mr. Baer was a former CIA officer and Hezbollah expert with over 35 years of experience. He is also the author of many books about Hezbollah. He testified that the evidence at the trial did not link my uncle to Hezbollah; the evidence showed that my uncle was a Lebanese nationalist. Importantly, Mr. Baer was not paid for his testimony.
Now, you may wonder, if the above statements are true, then how did the jury convict my uncle? Knowing that there was no evidence against my uncle to convict him on Hezbollah charges, the prosecutor planned his trial strategy on the fear and anger of 9/11:
1. Before and during my uncle's trial, the prosecution saturated the media with alleged acts of terrorism perpetrated in the '80s by Hezbollah. This tactic was purposely done to further inflame the public, regardless of the fact that my uncle was a child in the '80s.
2. The security around the court and the way my uncle was escorted from and to the court could only be described as ostentatious. They transported my uncle in armored trucks and police convoys. They even transported the jury from secret locations to the court. However, when the media was not outside the court, they transported my uncle with other inmates in a van!
3. The prosecutor played to the jury a few seconds out of 90-minute videotape documentaries in which people and Hezbollah members in Lebanon chat "death to Israel, death to America." Then, the prosecutor argued to the jury that my uncle had these documentary tapes because of the few seconds. There was no evidence that my uncle had seen these tapes before or that they were his. These tapes were not even converted to the American system (so no one saw them).
4. The prosecutor paid $ 25,000 to Mr. Matthew Levitt to testify at the trial as an expert even though Mr. Levitt had never testified as an expert before. He did not speak Arabic and had never been to Lebanon. Oddly enough, ten years after my uncle's conviction, Mr. Levitt authored a book about Hezbollah in which he contradicted his trial testimony.
5. When my uncle took the stand in his defense, the prosecutor several times asked him about the terrorist events that occurred in the '80s when my uncle was a child and kept reminding the jury of these events as if my uncle had planned them. My uncle won a partial victory in his appeal. His 155 years was reduced to 30 years, but the average sentence for providing material support was 4 years and 5 months as Mr. McLoughlin showed the court at the resentencing hearing. There was no explanation as to why the judge, who acknowledged that my uncle did not support violence, sentenced him similarly to those who committed violent acts. Mr. Mclughlin later discovered that the judge had written his sentencing memorandum a day before the sentencing hearing was finalized (this means the judge had made his mind up before the hearing was completed.)
For the last 15 years, my uncle and his family have been suffering because of a crime that my uncle is innocent of. And my uncle has been fighting for his freedom to go back to his family in Lebanon, but the justice system has not shown him justice. Mr. McLoughlin, who helped my uncle for years without any financial compensation, filed a clemency petition on my uncle behalf. He wrote: "I have known Mr. Hammoud for fourteen years. I know him well. We speak and correspond frequently. In my 30 plus years of practice I can point to no other sentence that I believe is as unfair as this one. Mr. Hammoud is not a 'Jihadi.' He is a man who came to the U.S. as an 18 year old to join his brothers, who became involved in cigarette tax avoidance, and sent money back to his home country. He was unextraordinary in 2001, but came to trial in an extraordinary time. Today, he is a mature, thoughtful, well read man. I consider him a friend. He is unfailingly and genuinely appreciative of this law firm's efforts on his behalf and he makes the effort to say so. His 30 year sentence for non-violent offense, which takes away his entire adult life, denies his ever having a wife and children, and completely isolates him from his immediate family and his home, is extraordinary."
Now it is your time to join us and sign this petition so that justice may be served and my uncle can go back to his family and elderly mother before she passes away in Lebanon. Please sign the petition and I would also really appreciate it if you could share it as well. Thank you, and to learn more about my uncle, please visit his website at mohamadhammoud.org.
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