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Defense: Bankers Didn’t Know They Were Handling Drug Profits

January 31, 1990

TAMPA, Fla. (AP) _ A banker charged with hiding illegal drug profits in a $32 million money- laundering case says he was tricked by federal agents and now faces guilt by association to his former customer - Manuel Noriega.

Amjad Awan, who once claimed to control Noriega’s secret accounts, is charged along with four other officers of the Bank of Credit and Commerce International and a Colombian with laundering cash they knew to be drug proceeds.

In opening arguments Tuesday, prosecutors wove an account of how undercover agents infiltrated a Colombian drug lord’s operation, picked up cocaine profits from U.S. middlemen and went to the bankers to help hide the source of the cash.

″It’s easy after the fact to look back and second-guess,″ countered Awan’s attorney, John P. Hume. ″But it’s standard practice: Bankers never ask where the money comes from. It embarrasses customers and drives people away.″

Hume said Robert Musella, who was actually a Customs agent posing as a high-stakes launderer, never had a deal with the bankers to launder drug cash.

″He never said he was engaged in criminal conduct. He never gave Awan an opportunity to get in or to get out,″ Hume said.

Although Awan testified before a U.S. Senate panel in 1988 that he once handled $23 million in Noriega’s accounts, the defense attorney also warned the government to keep the deposed Panamanian leader out of the case.

″This is guilt by association. By focusing in on Panama and General Noriega, they’re causing you not to focus in on the problems of the transactions,″ Hume told jurors.

The other defendants are Colombian Rudolf Armbrect of Medellin; Syed Aftab Hussain, who was operations officer of the Luxembourg-based bank in Panama; Akbar A. Bilgrami of Miami, a director of the Latin American Division; Sibte Hassan, who was an officer with the Paris branch; and Ian Howard, French country manager based in Paris.

They are accused of conspiracy to traffic in drugs, conspiracy to launder drug profits and money laundering.

Prosecutors said the bankers proposed a scheme in which millions in drug profits were converted into certificates of deposit at the bank’s Panama City branch, and then used as collateral for loans that gave drug barons a source of cash.

Undercover agents recorded 148 meetings and more than 2,000 telephone calls that prosecutors said will show the defendants were aware they were handling drug money.

″It was a policy of the bank to take in as many deposits as you can as fast as you can and don’t be too careful about where it comes from,″ Assistant U.S. Attorney Michael Rubenstein said.

″My clients are the biggest drug dealers in Colombia,″ the prosecutor quoted the undercover agent as telling Awan.

″It’s not any business of mine who the customers are,″ Awan replied, according to Rubinstein.

Rubenstein said the bankers were motivated by ambition.

″Their career goals,″ he said, ″were more important than the laws of any country.″

Before the start of jury selection two weeks ago, two divisions of the Luxembourg bank, one of the world’s largest private financial institutions, pleaded guilty to money-laundering charges.

As part of a plea bargain, the bank agreed to forfeit a record $14 million in assets frozen earlier by the government and to cooperate against other defendants.

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