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Dozens of defendants plead ‘not guilty’ as ‘tobacco case’ trial begins

Lawyers, judges argue over SSC’s jurisdiction over case

By Rana Husseini - Mar 13,2019 - Last updated at Mar 13,2019

AMMAN — Dozens of defendants standing trial at the State Security Court (SSC) for the so-called "tobacco case" on Tuesday pleaded not guilty to all charges.

The 29 defendants and 25 companies have been charged with acts that endanger society’s safety, security and economic resources, as well as acts that change the state’s economic structure or endanger society’s basic conditions.

Other charges included accepting or providing bribes to carry out illegal acts, abusing power and money laundering, as well as tax evasion, among others.

Six other defendants, who are still at large, have also charged with the same offences.

During the court hearing, which lasted for almost three hours and was adjourned for an hour to decide on the SSC’s jurisdiction in the trial, the tribunal heard several testimonies from the defendants’ lawyers arguing that their clients should be tried in civil courts and that “illegal questioning and interrogations of their clients” took place.

Presiding Judge Mohammad Afifi ruled that the court has jurisdiction over the case and adjourned the session until March 26, to start hearing the prosecution’s witnesses in the case.

The SSC indictment sheet in the “tobacco case” includes charges against a minister and former director of the Jordan Customs Department (JCD) Wadah Hmoud, who allegedly cooperated with the main suspect in the case, Awni Mutee, to facilitate smuggled tobacco in exchange for bribes.

The tobacco factory case, which involves the illegal manufacturing, faking and smuggling of cigarettes, has remained in the media spotlight for months.

In addition to Hmoud, several officials and former officials were allegedly involved in the case, including former minister Musa Oweis, Lt. Gen. Salem Khasawneh and Lt. Gen. Wael Smadi from the JCD, former adviser Wahab Awamleh and free trade zone official Muhieldin Ghitan.

Mutee, the primary suspect in the operation, reportedly fled the country to Lebanon last year, one day ahead of a crackdown on the alleged illegal tobacco manufacturing and smuggling factory, but was later extradited from Turkey.

The SSC’s indictment list chronicled years of cooperation in the illegal operation between Mutee and Hmoud, in which the latter allegedly received payments from the former in exchange for facilitating the smuggling process.

The facilitation process reportedly included transferring or referring to retirement any employee who would impede tobacco smuggling, as well as diverting inspection activities into Mutee’s business, according to the court document.

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