March 21, 2013
LIMASSOL, Cyprus -- On the same day President Obama called the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah a "terrorist" organization in front of hundreds of applauding Israeli students, a European court has, for the first time, convicted a young man of plotting to target Israeli citizens abroad on Hezbollah's behalf.
U.S. officials said they hope today's conviction will help push the European Union to declare Hezbollah a terrorist group, restricting the group's ability to recruit and raise funds within Europe. Hezbollah is already on the U.S. and U.K.'s list of terror organizations.
In the southern Cypriot port city of Limassol, Hossam Taleb Yaccoub, a Lebanese-Swedish 24-year-old, was convicted being a member of a criminal organization, Hezbollah, and of plotting a terrorist attack similar to the Bulgaria bus bombing that claimed the lives of six Israelis and a Bulgarian driver last July. Bulgarian authorities said they believe Hezbollah was responsible for that attack, and top Israeli officials said it was part of a "consistent pattern" of plots targeting Israelis around the globe.
In Yaccoub's case, prosecutors accused the 24-year-old of tracking the movements of Israeli tourists in Cyprus, noting the arrival times of charter flights and registration numbers of buses carrying Israelis. Yaccoub has admitted his allegiance to Hezbollah, but denied being part of any plot to attack Israelis.
In a brief interview with ABC News, Yaccoub declined to discuss his case, and referred questions to his lawyer. Yaccoub spoke softly and calmly and greeted the reporter warmly and in perfect English. He would say only that he maintained his innocence.
"It's too soon to talk," he said.
Yaccoub's lawyer, Antonis Georgiades, told ABC News that he would appeal the conviction, calling some of the evidence insubstantial and "far-fetched." Georgiades said the bus passengers Yaccoub is accused of tracking were actually Russian, not Israeli.
"In the law, suspicion does not add up to being guilty," he said.
The court found that Hezbollah acted in complete secrecy and "has multiple members and proceeds with various activities, including military training of its members," according to Judge Tasia Psara-Miltiadou, who read an 80-page document in court. "Therefore, the court rules that Hezbollah acts as a criminal organization."
U.S. officials said they have been looking forward to this verdict, eager to convince European countries -- after years of pressure -- to label Hezbollah a terrorist group. France and Germany in particular have resisted American requests to make that declaration, worried it would destabilize Lebanon's fragile government and contribute to Middle Eastern instability.
Rather, European officials have argued they need to keep an open line to the group, which some consider a legitimate political organization. Along with their alleged terrorist plots, Hezbollah offers local social services to many people in Lebanon and plays a major role in Lebanese politics.
Yaccoub was found guilty on four counts of "being a member of a criminal organization," "committing a criminal act" and on one count of money laundering. Yaccoub was cleared on three counts of "cooperating with another person to commit a criminal act" because the court wasn't able to establish the identity of his Hezbollah contact.
The maximum sentence for money laundering is 14 years. The maximum sentence on each of the first four counts for which Yaccoub was convicted is three years, served either concurrently or successively. But, given precedence, a Cypriot judge told ABC News that the charges would likely be reduced to a total of seven to 10 years. Then again, the official said that because a case like this had never been tried before in Cyprus, it is difficult to predict how the court would sentence him.
President Obama, who is in Israel, today addressed an assembly of Israelis and directly condemned the Lebanese group.
"Every country that values justice should call Hezbollah what it truly is: a terrorist organization," he said to thunderous applause.