Attorneys for a North Carolina man convicted of aiding terrorists while the nation was still reeling from the 9/11 attacks told a federal appeals court Tuesday that his 30-year prison sentence is disproportionate to much lighter punishments handed down in scores of similar cases that followed.
Mohamad Hammoud is seeking a new trial, or at least a new sentencing hearing.
Hammoud, 38, was the first person found guilty of violating a 1996 law that makes it illegal to give money to designated terror groups. His June 2002 conviction for smuggling cigarettes and sending $3,500 of the profits to the militant group Hezbollah in his native Lebanon was hailed by the U.S. government as a milestone in the war against terrorism.
Prosecutors said Hammoud used a sham marriage to establish U.S. residency, organized a Hezbollah cell in Charlotte, joined others in a multimillion-dollar cigarette smuggling operation and funneled some of the proceeds to the radical Islamic group.
Hammoud's attorneys have disputed that he was a Hezbollah member and claimed he sent money to a wing of the organization that provides social services, not the militant wing responsible for attacks in Israel.
"This was not a crime of violence," Hammoud's attorney, Stanley Cohen, told a three-judge panel of the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. "There were no victims in the case. It was clearly not as serious as other terrorism cases that have come down the pike since."
Federal prosecutor David A. Brown Sr. also asked the court to order a new sentencing hearing, but for a different reason. He said the 30-year sentence was too light.
"We think the facts, the record, warrants a life sentence," Brown told the panel, which likely will rule within a few weeks.
Hammoud initially was sentenced to 155 years in prison.
U.S. District Judge Graham Mullen last year declared the term "grossly disproportionate' and reduced it to 30 years, satisfying neither the prosecution nor the defense. Judge Andre Davis of the appeals court suggested that if both sides are unhappy, it might mean the lower court struck the right balance.
Attorneys for Hammoud cited numerous subsequent terrorism cases that they claim are similar, but that have produced sentences as light as four to five years. They also urged the court to consider new evidence raised at last year's resentencing, including a former CIA agent's testimony that cast doubt about whether Hammoud could have been a Hezbollah operative.
James P. McLoughlin Jr., an attorney for Hammoud, said no expert on terrorism could have testified for Hammoud in the months after the Sept. 11 attacks and expected to keep his job, and "to believe otherwise is to ignore the historical context" of the case.
Brown argued that Hammoud was convicted of several crimes carried out over a five-year period, so comparing his case to others that followed was impractical.
"Sentencing in this day and age has to be individualized," he said.
Brown also disputed the assertion by Hammoud's attorneys that because he will be deported to Lebanon as soon as he is released from prison, he poses no risk to the United States.
"That's putting the fox back in the hen house," Brown said.
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