Bail granted in Florida Hezbollah finance case


A judge granted bail Monday to a businessman accused of exporting video game consoles and cameras to a South American mall listed by U.S. authorities as a financing conduit for the Hezbollah militant group based in Lebanon.

Bail for 56-year-old Khaled Safadi was set at just over $1.5 million by U.S. Magistrate Judge William Turnoff despite objections from prosecutors that he might try to flee to Lebanon or Paraguay. Turnoff said Safadi, a permanent U.S. resident, has strong family and community ties in South Florida and no past criminal record.

“The dumbest thing the defendant could do is not appear in court as required,” Turnoff said.

Prosecutors contend that Safadi, who operates Cedar Distributors Inc., and three other men illegally exported about $720,000 in Sony Playstation consoles and digital cameras to the Galeria Page mall in Ciudad del Este, Paraguay. Exports to the mall are prohibited because profits are allegedly funneled to Hezbollah, which the U.S. lists as a terrorist organization blamed for numerous attacks on Israel.

It doesn’t matter that the exports included harmless video game gear.

“It’s shipping to the entity that’s banned,” said Assistant U.S. Attorney Russell Koonin at a hearing. “That entity is on the banned list because of its support to Hezbollah.”

Safadi attorney Michael Tein ridiculed the prosecution’s case, pointing to documents showing that Safadi halted the Paraguay exports after he was contacted about one shipment in 2008 by federal agents. Tein brought a Sony Playstation console to the hearing to contrast it with similar cases involving weaponry or advanced military technology.

“It’s not a missile, not guns, not bombs — it’s a children’s game,” Tein said. “It’s shameful that the government has tried to pump this case up to terrorism.”

Safadi was expected to be released on bail after completing paperwork.

A second man charged in the case, 46-year-old Ulises Talavera, reached an agreement Monday with prosecutors for release on $550,000 bail. The third suspect arrested in the U.S., Emilio Gonzalez-Neira, 43, has agreed temporarily to remain in custody before trial, his lawyer said. The man who allegedly purchased the electronics, 37-year-old Samer Mehdi, is believed to be in Paraguay.

All four are accused of violating the U.S. ban on exports to the mall as well as conspiracy and smuggling charges. They face a maximum of 35 years each in prison if convicted.

The Galeria Page mall is located in the so-called Tri-Border Area of South America, where Argentina, Brazil and Paraguay meet. The Treasury Department in 2006 officially blocked U.S. business with the mall, its owner and several other people because they are all allegedly part of Hezbollah’s global fundraising network.