Federal prosecutors to pay expenses of ship stopped for guns

Posted Aug. 25, 2011, at 2:32 p.m.
Last modified Aug. 25, 2011, at 8:49 p.m.

PORTLAND, Maine — Federal prosecutors don’t want a yacht owner to sell his vessel until they determine whether the guns and ammunition found hidden in it while it was in Maine waters last year were being shipped out of the United States illegally.

The firm that owns the ship on which the yacht and the guns were found wants to be reimbursed for the costs it incurred in October when an investigation by agents from the U.S. Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement delayed the departure of the Damgracht.

Joseph E. Sfeir, who lives in the Middle East, wants the Sea J, valued at $284,000, and its outboard motor, valued at $10,000, delivered to Lebanon as planned.

Although no charges have been lodged against Sfeir, documents filed in U.S. District Court in Portland concerning the seizure and possible forfeiture of the yacht, engine, guns and ammunition illuminate the investigation into what might have been an attempt to subvert the ban on the sale of guns and bullets to Lebanon without a license.

It was during a routine inspection on Oct. 26 of the Damgracht, a Dutch-flagged carrier vessel docked in Portland, that the guns were discovered on Sfeir’s yacht, according to court documents. It was one of eight luxury yachts being shipped to Lebanon via Turkey.

Agents seized a Bushmaster .223-caliber rifle, a .45-caliber handgun, .25-caliber handgun and hundreds of rounds of ammunition while the ship was in Portland.

Three days later, the ship stopped in Eastport to take on 45 cargo containers of Holstein cows bound for Turkey. Customs agents there seized Sfeir’s yacht, according to court documents. Further inspection of the Sea J led to the seizure of an M-4 rifle and more ammunition.

Since Dec. 15, 2006, the U.S. has denied all applications to export “defense articles” to Lebanon, according to court documents, except for those authorized by Lebanon or the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon. The guns and ammunition seized were on a list of munitions banned from being exported to Lebanon without a license. Sfeir did not have an export license, according to court documents.

Sfeir allegedly purchased the guns on Oct 1 and 2 but court documents do not state where.

“When Sfeir purchased the firearms, he said he wanted the firearms on the boat before it sailed because [his yacht] was an American-flagged vessel and he wanted to be able to fend off any pirates he might encounter,” a court document states without saying to whom Sfeir allegedly made the statement.

According to federal prosecutors, Sfeir knew he had to declare firearms to customs before leaving the U.S. because he was arrested in 1976 for trying to take a gun on an airplane.

As for the shipping firm’s $45,575 claim, the government has agreed to pay it when and if the forfeiture of the Sea J is approved by a federal judge.

Last year, federal forfeitures totaled $2.5 billion, The Wall Street Journal reported earlier this week.

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