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DOJ appeals court's decision to release Hezbollah money man early

The Justice Department argues Kassim Tajideen does not qualify to be freed on "compassionate grounds" due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Image: Hezbollah
Hezbollah fighters hold flags as they attend the memorial of their slain leader Sheik Abbas al-Mousawi, who was killed by an Israeli airstrike in 1992, in Tefahta village, south Lebano, on Feb. 13, 2016.Mohammed Zaatari / AP file

WASHINGTON — The Justice Department is appealing a federal judge’s decision to grant an early release to a Lebanese man labeled by U.S. authorities as a Hezbollah financier, arguing he does not qualify to be freed on “compassionate grounds” due to the COVID-19 pandemic, according to court documents.

Kassim Tajideen, 65, had pleaded guilty to money-laundering charges, forfeited $50 million and was sentenced in 2019 to five years in prison. But U.S. District Judge Reggie Walton last month ordered his release and reduced his sentence to time served after Tajideen’s lawyers argued their client was “extremely vulnerable” to contracting COVID-19 due to his age and health.

With Tajideen due to fly back to Lebanon next month, the Justice Department on Thursday filed an appeal of the release order in the U.S. Court of Appeals.

The Justice Department, in its brief to Judge Walton, said Tajideen’s health had not seriously deteriorated and that he was not in any imminent danger from COVID-19 at the medium-security prison in Cumberland, Maryland, where he was being held.

Out of 1,214 inmates at the prison, six have tested positive for COVID-19, as have two staffers, according to Justice Department lawyers. All eight have since recovered, and no new coronavirus cases have emerged at the facility, according to court documents. The Justice Department also acknowledged Tajideen had hypertension but said it was not severe and had not worsened.

Tajideen had asked initially for early release from the Cumberland prison but the warden had rejected the request. Tajideen then issued the request to the federal district court in Washington, D.C., and prevailed over the objections of the Justice Department. He is now being held at a nearby county jail, awaiting a flight next month to Lebanon.

In arguing against his release, the Justice Department said Tajideen had committed a serious crime involving a massive money-laundering scheme.

“The need for the sentence imposed to reflect the seriousness of the offense and to promote deterrence by others and respect for U.S. laws around the world remains,” the Justice Department said in its brief to the court.

Tajideen’s case has prompted speculation in Lebanese media that it is somehow linked to an American, Amer Fakhoury, who was released from prison in Lebanon earlier this year and returned to the United States.

Fakhoury was accused of torturing prisoners during the Israeli occupation of Lebanon as a member of the now-defunct Israeli-backed South Lebanon Army. He became a U.S. citizen in 2019.

But one of Tajideen’s lawyers, William Taylor, told NBC News that his client’s case was not part of any possible prisoner exchange.

“There absolutely no truth to rumors that U.S. nationals abroad are to be released in connection with Mr. Tajideen’s release,” he said in an email.

Even if he is released and deported to Lebanon, Tajideen will continue to be on the Treasury Department’s black list of designated terrorists, banning him from doing business with any U.S. firm or citizen. The Treasury Department labeled him a “specially designated global terrorist” in 2009, accusing him of providing tens of millions of dollars of financial support to the Iranian-backed Hezbollah group.

His case resulted from a wider Drug Enforcement Administration investigation called Project Cassandra, which focuses on what U.S. authorities call Hezbollah’s “global criminal support network.”

Josh Lipowsky, a senior research analyst at the Counter Extremism Project, a non-profit group that tracks extremism, said releasing Tajideen could set a precedent with unknown consequences.

“This release risks setting a precedent for the early release of designated terrorists. And we have to fully consider the risks that such early releases pose and be concerned what happens to these people after their release,” Lipowsky said.

Tony Badran of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies think tank called the case “a miscarriage of justice in letting a prominent financier of the premier global terror group, which has American blood on its hands, out of jail before serving out his sentence.”