‘Lebanese Connection’ drug trial to open in Paris

France, where several of the defendants reside, was identified as being at the center of the syndicate’s operations in Europe. (File/AFP)
Updated 13 November 2018
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‘Lebanese Connection’ drug trial to open in Paris

  • The chief defendant is Mohamad Noureddine, a 44-year-old Lebanese businessman with interests in real estate and jewelry
  • The trial is scheduled to wind up on Nov. 28

PARIS: Fifteen alleged members of a vast crime ring accused of laundering Colombian drug money through luxury jewelry and using shadowy middlemen from the Lebanese diaspora go on trial in Paris on Tuesday.
The chief defendant is Mohamad Noureddine, a 44-year-old Lebanese businessman with interests in real estate and jewelry.
He was arrested in France in January 2016 during police raids that also took place in Italy, Belgium and Germany, after an alert from the US Drug Enforcement Agency.
US officials, who have imposed sanctions on Noureddine over his supposed links to Lebanon’s Hezbollah militant group, suspect the network of operating between South America, Europe and the Middle East since 2012.
They identified France, where several of the defendants reside, as being at the center of the syndicate’s operations in Europe.
The proceeds of cocaine sales were allegedly collected in Europe, then channelled to Lebanon before being transferred to Colombian traffickers.
The funds were moved using a centuries-old system of payment dating from the spice trade called “hawala,” passing through a tested network requiring ironclad trust.
Hawala operators also offer the advantage of leaving no trace of the transactions.
A few months after Noureddine’s arrest US police detained the suspected head of the network, Mohamad Ammar, in Florida on charges that he illegally moved hundreds of thousands of dollars into Miami banks.
Ammar, who regularly shuttled between California and Colombia’s second city Medellin, has since admitted his ties to Colombian drug cartels, prosecutors say.
Investigators in the “Lebanese Connection” inquiry, also dubbed the “Cedar Affair” after Lebanon’s national tree, suspect a main client was a Colombian drug king known as El Chapulin who shipped large quantities of cocaine to Europe.
After the drugs were sold, the network used hawala operatives to gather the proceeds, employing well established techniques such as regularly changing mobile phones, coded language and hiding money in cars.
Investigators listening in on phone conversations deduced that a “Mercedes 250” referred to a pickup of 250,000 euros, while a “truck” referred to one million euros.
The “oven” was a reference to the Netherlands, and Belgium was known as the “mill.”
The collected cash was then used to buy luxury jewelry, watches and cars which were resold in Lebanon or West Africa.
The freshly laundered funds were transferred to the Colombians through currency exchange or money transfer bureaus.
Noureddine has admitted to organizing pickups of cash but pleaded ignorance about the provenance of the funds.
He has staunchly denied that some of the money could have been destined for Hezbollah as the DEA has suggested.
William Julie, a lawyer for one of the defendants who is familiar with cross-border cases handled by both US and European investigators, said such cooperation is “indispensable” but often leads only to “second-tier individuals who shouldn’t be caught up in the crackdown.”
His client, who is considered close to Noureddine, has strongly denied any wrongdoing. He was detained for 18 months before being freed on bail.
None of the defendants have criminal records.
The trial is scheduled to wind up on November 28.


Australian PM welcomes ‘moderation’ from Erdogan

Updated 7 min 30 sec ago
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Australian PM welcomes ‘moderation’ from Erdogan

  • Scott Morrison sees President Erdogan's column in the Washington Post as an "overnight progress"
  • The Turkish president had earlier painted the Christchurch attack as part of an assault on Turkey and Islam

SYDNEY: Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison on Thursday welcomed some “moderation” in President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s comments in the wake of the Christchurch massacre.
Trying to take the sting out of a diplomatic row that has threatened relations between Australia, New Zealand and Turkey, Morrison pointed to a recent Erdogan column in the Washington Post as progress.
“Overnight, progress has been made on this issue and overnight we’ve already seen a moderation of the president’s views,” Morrison said, citing the article in which Erdogan stepped away from direct criticism of New Zealand.
The Turkish leader — who is in full campaign mode ahead of local elections — still used the article to accuse Western countries of meeting Islamophobia with “silence.”
But Morrison took it as a diplomatic off-ramp nonetheless.
Morrison — who is also in full campaign mode, ahead of a general election — had on Wednesday pilloried Erdogan for his comments in the wake of the Christchurch massacre, describing them as “reckless” and “highly offensive.”
Erdogan has repeatedly used video footage of the massacre shot by the attacker who killed 50 people and painted the attack it as part of an assault on Turkey and Islam.
He had also warned that anti-Muslim Australians and New Zealanders would be “sent back in coffins” like their grandfathers at Gallipoli, a blood-drenched WWI battle.
His office on Wednesday said the remarks were taken out of context.
More than 8,000 Australians died fighting Turkish forces at Gallipoli, which has a prominent place in Australia’s collective memory.
Morrison had summoned the Turkish ambassador over the comments, dismissing the “excuses” offered and warning that relations were under review.
“I am expecting, and I have asked, for these comments to be clarified, to be withdrawn,” he said.

Rambling manifesto
The gunman’s so-called “manifesto” — a 70-plus page rambling question and answer — mentions Turkey and the minarets of Istanbul’s famed Hagia Sophia, now a museum, that was once a church before becoming a mosque during the Ottoman empire.
Three Turkish nationals were wounded in the rampage that killed 50 worshippers at the mosques in the southern New Zealand city.
“President #Erdogan’s words were unfortunately taken out of context,” Fahrettin Altun, communications director for the Turkish presidency, claimed on Twitter.
Altun said Erdogan’s comments were in “a historical context of attacks against Turkey, past and present.”
“Turks have always been the most welcoming & gracious hosts to their #Anzac visitors,” he added, referring to Australian and New Zealand veterans and families who are expected to travel there for the anniversary on April 25.
Erdogan has built his political base on being a champion of Muslim Turks. For most of the last century, the country’s government has been avowedly secular.
Like leaders in Iran and Russia, Erdogan has also played on a sense that Turkey — the inheritor of the once-mighty Ottoman Empire — has not been given enough respect on the international stage.
Erdogan had earlier been sharply rebuked by New Zealand for his comments and for using gruesome video shot by the Christchurch mosque gunman as an election campaign prop.
New Zealand’s Deputy Prime Minister Winston Peters protested on Monday that such politicization of the massacre “imperils the future and safety of the New Zealand people and our people abroad, and it’s totally unfair.”
New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has sent Peters to Istanbul to meet with Turkish leaders on the issue this week.
In the Washington Post article Erdogan praised Ardern’s “courage, leadership and sincerity” in handling the crisis.