‘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

‘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.


Republican stalwart Rooney ‘thinking’ about impeachment

Updated 16 min 25 sec ago

Republican stalwart Rooney ‘thinking’ about impeachment

WASHINGTON: President Donald Trump gave an atta-boy to Republican Rep. Francis Rooney last year on the congressman’s home turf in swing state Florida.
“I love it when he defends me,” the president said then. He might feel differently now.
The second-term Republican said publicly Friday what others in his party are not, namely that acting White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney acknowledged a quid pro quo was at work when Trump held up US aid to Ukraine in exchange for Kyiv’s investigation of Democrats and the 2016 elections. Mulvaney later claimed his comments had been misconstrued, but Rooney said he and other Republicans heard them clearly.
“He said there’s a quid pro quo,” Rooney said of Mulvaney during a telephone interview. “I just don’t think that the power and prestige of our country is supposed to be used for political things.”
Asked whether he thinks Trump’s conduct is impeachable, Rooney replied, “I’m still thinking about it.”
Anything short of a “no” on that question, even from only one of 197 Republicans in the House, is notable amid the drive by majority Democrats to impeach Trump. The president has made clear that he does more than notice what he considers acts of disloyalty; he is fond of making examples of Republicans by threatening to sink their re-election bids and following through in a few cases.
Friday night, Trump tweeted, “REPUBLICANS MUST STICK TOGETHER AND FIGHT!” That tweet was accompanied by a video targeting Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, who has been critical of Trump’s handling of Turkey’s assault on Syrian Kurds.
When Rep. Justin Amash of politically critical Michigan became the first House Republican to call for Trump’s impeachment earlier this year — and quit the party — the backlash from Trump’s orbit was swift.
But that was before revelations about Trump’s pressure on Ukraine, which made his impeachment by the end of the year a real possibility. Since the release of a rough transcript of Trump’s call with Ukraine’s president, many current and former administration officials have testified before House impeachment investigators.
Then Mulvaney spoke on Thursday. Rooney said in a telephone interview that the chief of staff’s comments marked a turning point for him from giving the president “the benefit of the doubt.” And he said GOP colleagues are newly troubled.
“They were all going around saying what the president said — that there wasn’t a quid pro quo,” Rooney said. “There were a lot of Republicans looking at that headline yesterday. I think people were concerned about it.”
Rooney said he had not received any blowback from the White House for his comments, though about half of the calls he’s getting are from constituents who are critical, including “some pretty hostile” ones from ardent Trump supporters.
Only a year ago, at a presidential rally in Estero, Trump praised Rooney as “a man who’s so great to me on television. This guy is special. He was a great businessman. Now he’s a great congressman, Francis Rooney.”
He went on: “I love him when he defends me. He’s brutal. He gets the job done, right, Francis? Thank you, man.”
Rooney, 65, is a member of the Foreign Affairs Committee, a solid member of the Republican establishment. Among the wealthiest members of the House, he won his second term last year with 62 percent of the vote. His foreign policy bona fides come in part from his service as ambassador to the Holy See under President George W. Bush.
His official biography tells the story of his longtime connection to the GOP. In 1984, the family started Rooney Holdings Inc. One of the company’s subsidiaries counts among its projects the presidential libraries for both Bush and his father, George H. W. Bush, the Dallas Cowboys and Houston Texans football stadiums, the US Capitol Visitor’s Center, the Walter Reed Army Institute for Research and the international terminal at Hartsfield-Jackson Airport in Atlanta.
Rooney has at times been a Trump critic. He was one of 13 House Republicans to join a Democratic effort early this year to stop the president from declaring a national emergency to fund his border wall with Mexico.
On Friday, Rooney was no longer one of Trump’s defenders, on television or elsewhere.
“Whatever may have been gray and unclear before is certainly clear now,” he said on CNN.