The North Carolina Tobacco Smuggling Case: Another example of the Disparity of Justice in America
"...One nation, under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all." The concluding words to the pledge of allegiance, a daily ritual for millions of school children around this nation, still reflects the unredeemed check marked "insufficient funds" that the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., alluded to almost four decades ago, and remains an unfulfilled promise for the multitude of have-nots of American society.
Far from being a nation of "liberty and justice for all," America is a study in contrasts; a multi-tiered society where justice often means 'Just Us' (the privileged few). There is the justice for blacks, and the justice for whites; justice for the rich, and justice for the poor; justice for immigrants, and justice for card carrying citizens of the state; justice for Muslims and justice for non-Muslims.
This multi-tiered phenomenon is precisely what is at work in the case that erupted in North Carolina and Michigan on July 21, 2000. Can I prove it? Judge for yourself.
In his book entitled, My Life As A Radical Lawyer, the late Bill Kunstler observed: "Many of the beliefs and values that split the country in 1969 still divide us; there still exists a perpetual war between 'them' and 'us,' between the good guys and the bad guys, the inner city and the suburbs. We are a nation divided, torn apart by hatred, fear and poverty. I see my work as one small attempt to end the factionalism, heal the wounds, and move society toward dispensing justice, real justice, to everyone.
"In recent years, I have taken on many Muslim clients and have earned myself even more hatred and disapproval than for my representation of black defendants. Today Muslims are the most hated group in the country; the moment a Muslim is accused of a crime, the specter of terrorism is raised, and everyone panics." (From the chapter entitled, "The Despised Muslim," pg. 317)
Now for the proof.
A federal grand jury in North Carolina recently ordered R.J Reynolds Tobacco Company in Winston-Salem to turn over documents involving a former subsidiary that pleaded guilty to international cigarette smuggling. Last year, Northern Brands executive Les Thompson pleaded guilty in US District Court in Syracuse, NY, to defrauding the Canadian government out of $72 million in taxes, and is presently serving a six year sentence in federal prison. Northern Brands paid $15 million in penalties.
Thompson also testified, according to a report in the August 19, 2000, edition of The News & Observer [of North Carolina], that R.J. Reynolds "created Northern Brands to smuggle cigarettes, and that in 1993 the subsidiary averaged $1.3 million a week in profits." RJR eventually made $100 million in total profit from the now defunct subsidiary, he said.
Canadian and US authorities began investigating the subsidiary more than four years ago for smuggling Canadian cigarettes meant for export back into the country (through an Indian reservation on the New York-Canadian border)to avoid high taxes. The Canadian government filed a $1 billion lawsuit against RJR last year, but the lawsuit was dismissed last month. Canadian officials said they will appeal.
A Study in Contrasts
There is a glaring disparity in the handling of the two tobacco smuggling cases by the media and law enforcement community. Widely reported "terrorist connections" are said to be the unofficial motive for the alleged smuggling operation involving the Muslims; while in the corporate smuggling case involving hundreds of millions of dollars, both the US Attorneys Office and RJR have refused to discuss the case in the public domain. What scant coverage the latter case has received has been gleaned from court documents, with the media being far more circumspect in its reporting.
While there has been a rush to judgment, coupled by a no holds barred effort to ensnare as many persons in the net as possible in the case involving the Muslims, government prosecutors have exemplified a far more cautious approach with respect to RJR. A presumption of guilt juxtaposed against a constitutionally mandated presumption of innocence!
As stated in part one of this report, the Muslims were charged with immigration violations, weapons offenses, cigarette trafficking and money laundering - all are not charged with the same offenses. On my return to Raleigh I had an opportunity to meet with one of the Arab-American leaders who was involved in the July 27th press conference, Rajai'e Qubain (of the Arab-American Anti-Discrimination Committee), and he informed me that the weapons charges proved to be bogus. Firearms which were initially confiscated and suspect were found to be licensed and legal; the weapons have since been returned to their rightful owners.
As for the "sham marriages" accusation, the basis for the alleged immigration violations, it will be interesting to see how this particular charge plays itself out. The grand jury returned a 36-count indictment against the 18 defendants, of which 34 counts charge violations of federal immigration and naturalization laws. The other counts charge conspiracy to launder money and to traffic in contraband cigarettes. Sentences on each charge range from six months, a $250,000 fine or both - to 20 years, a $500,000 fine or both.
It should be noted that while Hizbullah has been repeatedly referenced as the primary beneficiary of this alleged "cigarette smuggling cartel," authorities speaking for the record have asserted, "None of the charges against those arrested in Charlotte involves any allegations of terrorist activities." As in other cases involving Muslims, guilt by association appears to be at the heart of the US government's allegations.
Ali Fayez Darwiche, the defendant reported to have sent more than $1 million from Charlotte to Lebanon during an 18-month period, is reported to have a brother "who is a well known Hezbollah leader." And while this has been repeatedly stated in media reports, only once did I read that Mr. Darwiche also had a thriving paint business. Another defendant, Mohamad Youssef Hammoud, the alleged ring leader, is reported to have received "Hezbollah sponsored military training."
Many lessons can be derived from a study of these two cases, revolving around the same core issue (tobacco smuggling) under the same legal jurisdiction. For Muslims, perhaps the most important lesson is the need for us to be always aware and vigilant concerning our rights and responsibilities (to ourselves, each other, and society as a whole). Coupled with this is the needful reminder that the "presumption of innocence" and "due process" didn't begin with the evolution of western jurisprudence. We must act accordingly.
(El-Hajj Mauri' Saalakhan is director of the Peace and Justice Foundation.)
Topics: Crime And Justice, North Carolina