CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- The same day last month that Mohamad Hammoud became the first person convicted under a 1996 law that bans aid to terrorist groups, a federal judge in California declared the statute unconstitutional.
Though federal prosecutors expect Hammoud's conviction to stand, questions surround the future of the law as the government plans to use it against two major defendants: the alleged "20th hijacker" Zacarias Moussaoui and John Walker Lindh, the American accused of taking up arms for the Taliban.
"With an issue this important, and with the questions being raised, it's something the U.S. Supreme Court may ultimately take a look at," said Deke Falls, Hammoud's lawyer. "I think they'll have to within the next three years."
On June 22, a federal jury in Charlotte found Hammoud guilty of providing material support to the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah. The 28-year-old Lebanese-born Hammoud could spend the rest of his life in prison.
Hammoud was accused by the government in March of funneling profits from a cigarette-smuggling ring to Hezbollah. He was convicted under a 6-year-old law that prohibits aid to groups and individuals classified as terrorist by the U.S. State Department.
Opens a new front
After the verdict, U.S. Attorney Bob Conrad said the conviction opens a new front in the war against terrorism.
"The fact that there are terrorist fund-raising cells in Charlotte means there are terrorist fund-raising cells elsewhere," he said. "We will try to prosecute elsewhere."
On the same day the verdict came down, U.S. District Judge Robert Takasugi in Los Angeles declared the law unconstitutional and threw out a March 2001 case against seven people accused of directing charitable donations to an Iranian group designated terrorist by the government.
Takasugi said the law violates foreign organizations' due process rights because it gives them no opportunity to contest their terrorist designation.
For now, Takasugi's ruling has no effect beyond the Los Angeles case, and the Justice Department has said it plans to appeal.
Hammoud also plans to appeal his conviction. Before his trial, defense lawyers in the case raised objections that echoed Takasugi's ruling but were rejected by the presiding judge.
Similar pretrial motions in the Lindh case, which is to be tried in Alexandria, Va., were denied last month by a federal judge there.