Cigarette Defendent Pleads Guilty

Friday, September 8th 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) — One of 18 suspects charged in a cigarette-smuggling ring that allegedly was raising money for the Islamic militant group Hezbollah has pleaded guilty to immigration law violations.

Samir Mohamad Ali Debk, 25, pleaded guilty Thursday to five violations. He was not charged with cigarette smuggling.

The immigration crimes are punishable by up to 40 years in prison. A sentencing date has not been set.

``He decided to plead guilty because it'll minimize the time he spends in custody,'' said defense attorney Haakon Thorsen. ``The charges against him are not that serious.''

Debk's plea came just five weeks after he and 17 others were indicted by a federal grand jury in Charlotte.

Officials allege some of the defendants used sham marriages to circumvent immigration laws, then set up a smuggling business in Charlotte to buy cases of cigarettes in North Carolina, which has a low cigarette tax, and sell them at a profit in high-tax Michigan.

During Thursday's hearing, Assistant U.S. Attorney Kenneth Bell told Magistrate Judge Brent McKnight that Debk is not accused of committing any crimes linked to terrorism.

Debk is accused of conspiring to arrange fraudulent marriages to bring illegal Lebanese aliens into the United States. He also allegedly gave a false statement to an official at the U.S. Embassy in Nicosia, Cyprus, while applying for a visa in January 1999.

Thorsen said Debk has no criminal record and could spend less than a year in prison.