Judge Blamo Dixon of Criminal Court ‘C’ acquitted four men accused of importing 520 kilograms of cocaine worth US$100 million in Liberia in 2022.
The acquittal came after 11 of the 12 jurors found the men not guilty of all charges, including money laundering, unlicensed possession of controlled drugs, unlicensed importation of controlled drugs, and criminal conspiracy.
According to the jury, Makki Ahmed Issam, Adulai Djalo, Oliver Zayzay, and Malam Conte had no knowledge of the cocaine smuggling operation, as claimed by the government.
The 520-kilogram haul of the illicit substance had been seized by authorities in 2022 among containers that TRH Trading had imported from Brazil.
According to TRH Trading, which is a subsidiary of AJA Group Holdings, the accused had allegedly offered to pay US$200,000 for a single container that contained the cocaine, which at the time was costing less than US$30,000.
The accused, according to the company, later doubled their offer to US$400,000 within less than eight hours, and finally to US$1 million, a situation they claimed raised a red flag, leading them to contact the United States Ambassador, who then passed the information to Liberian security officials.
These claims were repeated in court by the government and its key witness, Samuel Nimely, the general manager of TRH Trading, and formed part of its core argument during the case.
However, the jury found that the case against the men lacked conclusive evidence linking them to the cocaine shipment, dealing a blow to President George Weah’s administration, which had hoped to use a guilty verdict to boost its claims of a serious crackdown on drug abuse in the country.
The acquittal also called into question the investigation conducted by the government security apparatus, which led to the accused being charged with numerous crimes, including money laundering, unlicensed possession of controlled drugs, unlicensed importation of controlled drugs, and criminal conspiracy.
If the accused had been found guilty, they could have faced a prison sentence of several years up to life imprisonment in accordance with the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act of 2014.
In Liberia, drug trafficking is considered a serious offense, and specific penalties and prison terms vary depending on various factors, such as the type and quantity of drugs involved, the defendant’s criminal history, and the circumstances of the case.
The jury verdict, as announced by Dixon, touched off a scene of jubilation, with some supporters of the accused seen praying and others dancing.
The government is not legally allowed to appeal the verdict, and as such, the accused are expected to be released from detention and from answering to the indictment. However, it is unclear whether the government will refund the US$200,000 and phones seized from the accused.
The case experienced several delays before coming to a conclusion, and at one point, the prosecution hastily ended its presentation of evidence after failing to secure the testimonies of three out of its eight witnesses.
This unexpected turn of events came after the prosecution team had boasted of having indisputable evidence to convict the accused of importing the largest quantity of drugs in the history of the country.
The development played into the hands of the accused lawyers, who argued that the prosecution’s failure to produce its additional witnesses, despite requesting extensions on multiple occasions, implied a lack of sufficient evidence to prove its case beyond a reasonable doubt.
Of the eight witnesses, only five appeared in court, including TRH Trading and the chief investigator of the Liberia Drugs Enforcement Agency (LDEA), who headed the panel that charged the defendants in 2022.
The defense lawyers had Conte testify on behalf of his accused colleagues. Conte, a Guinea-Bissau national who is fluent in Arabic, accused the government and TRH Trading of making up allegations in order to cover up the latter, which is one of the richest local companies, shipping the cocaine.
This allegation was backed by the President of the Customs Brokers Association, James Hinneh, who accused TRH Trading of illegally importing goods in the country.
According to Hinneh, TRH Trading makes imports without having an import permit declaration or an import notification form. These documents are key security instruments for shipment in the freight industry.
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