A crime ring with links to Lebanese Shiite militia Hezbollah accused of trafficking cocaine for a Colombian drug cartel and laundering the profits to buy weapons in Syria for the group is to go on trial in Paris on Tuesday.
The main agent accused of being the cell’s ringleader as a middleman for Hezbollah is Mohamad Noureddine, a 44-year-old Lebanese businessman with interests in real estate and jewellery arrested after an international investigation that took in seven countries, including France, Belgium, Germany and Italy.
Police arrested him in France in 2016 after a tip-off from US counter-narcotics agents. The US has sanctioned him for his alleged ties to Hezbollah and acting as a money launderer for its financial arm.
The ring is alleged to have raised funds for Iran-backed Hezbollah fighters in Syria where they are fighting alongside the forces of President Bashar Al Assad. The financial arm of Hezbollah uses supporters in the Lebanese diaspora around the world to raise funds.
The ring’s members are accused of operating throughout South America, Europe and the Middle East since 2012 and using the ancient banking system known as hawala to transfer drug money without trace using trusted brokers.
The proceeds of their drug trafficking were laundered to Europe, where they were collected, then sent to Lebanon and then on to Colombian traffickers.
The investigation is known as the “Cedar Affair” because of Lebanon’s national tree.
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 jewellery, 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.
“Hezbollah needs individuals like Mohamad Noureddine to launder criminal proceeds for use in terrorism and political destabilisation,” Adam J Szubin, then under secretary for terrorism and financial intelligence, said at the time of his arrest.
The trial, if Mr Noureddine is found guilty of involvement in cocaine trafficking for Hezbollah arms purchases, could be highly embarrassing a group that preaches religious piety at home in Lebanon.
Mr Noureddine has admitted to organising 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".
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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.