Tuesday, April 18, 2006

Keystone Kops? No, Kenyans, but Often Similarly Inept

The New York Times

Nairobi, Kenya, April 12 — Nobody was all that surprised last month when something went amiss as the authorities tried to burn more than a ton of cocaine seized in 2004 in the largest narcotics raid in the country's history.

After months of delays, the packets of powder were stuffed into giant incinerators at a medical research facility here. Then, as the fire roared and politicians, diplomats and law enforcement officials looked on, one of the two incinerators exploded, bringing the exercise to a temporary halt.

It was only the latest setback in the 16-month-old case, which has made it abundantly clear that Kenya is rather inexperienced when it comes to major drug investigations.

That will most likely change though. Traffickers are increasingly using Africa, both east and west, to smuggle cocaine from Latin America into Europe, according to a recent report by the International Narcotics Control Board. Africa is already the world's second-largest producer of cannabis, and southern Africa has a rapidly growing problem with methamphetamine.

Cocaine has long been a part of Nairobi's party circuit, but authorities say the quantities of the drug coming into the country in the past never approached the 1.1 tons seized in December 2004.

The police had received a tip from their counterparts in the Netherlands that a major deal was unfolding. And that's when the bungling began.

The Kenyan authorities waited six days to raid the beachfront villa the traffickers were using as a hide-out. Tipped off that the police were moving in, the suspected kingpins — six Dutch citizens and a Kenyan — packed up the house, in Malindi, spent a night in a Nairobi hotel, proceeded to the airport the next morning and flew out (albeit without the cocaine).

The fact that the dealers got away has renewed longstanding allegations that corruption within the police force is fueling the narcotics problem.

Philip K. Murgor, who was recently dismissed as Kenya's top prosecutor, is among those who makes that charge. The government says it fired Mr. Murgor last year for bungling important cases, but he says his ouster was a result of his efforts to combat corruption, in the cocaine case, for one.

The escape of the dealers has not stopped the police from rounding up suspects. Convicting them, however, has proved to be a challenge. Last November, a court cleared seven men of smuggling charges in the case and chastised prosecutors for failing to produce evidence linking them with the cocaine.

"This case was not adequately investigated," Rose Ougo, the senior principal magistrate, said at the time. "I urge the investigators and the prosecutors to treat such cases with the seriousness it deserves."

Another defendant was later acquitted, leaving six suspects still on trial for trafficking. They include an Italian couple — Angelo Ricci and his wife, Estella Duminga Furuli — who rented the villa to the traffickers.

The police found more than 1,500 pounds of cocaine concealed in a speedboat at the villa. An additional 650 pounds, believed to be part of the same shipment, was found in a warehouse, hidden in a secret compartment.

Even with the big fish out of the country, the cocaine trial has stretched on so long that the current judge, Aggrey Muchelule, openly speaks of his desire to end it soon.

"I'm very many times overtired of this case," he said the other day from the bench. "I wish we could say it was over."

That cannot yet be said.

The other day, in an dramatic moment, Mr. Ricci's lawyer, John Khaminwa, tried to put into evidence an internal memo in which the prosecutor spoke of the weaknesses in his case against three of the defendants charged with drug smuggling, including the two Italians.

"The three never participated directly or indirectly in the illegal trade of the drugs in question," wrote the prosecutor, Oriri Onyango. "However, to prove the charge of unlawful permitting premises to be used for the purpose of sale or distribution of narcotic drugs, it is incumbent upon the prosecution to maintain the main charge of trafficking in narcotic drugs against them, notwithstanding insufficient evidence to warrant their conviction on those counts."

Mr. Onyango howled in protest at the attempt to introduce the internal correspondence, which he said someone had leaked in violation of the official secrets act.

At first, Mr. Onyango questioned the document's authenticity, but a moment later he changed course and acknowledged writing it a year ago as part of what he called an early assessment of the case.

"I'm now confident of conviction," he said in an interview, after the judge ruled the document inadmissible.

Whether the defendants are convicted or not, the case has highlighted disarray within Kenya's law enforcement apparatus.

Mr. Murgor, who was removed in the middle of the case, accuses higher-ups of meddling. For instance, he says that while he was on vacation, the solicitor general, Wanjuki Muchemi, replaced the prosecutor whom Mr. Murgor had selected with Mr. Onyango, who had never been in charge of a drug case.

Mr. Onyango, in an interview, defended his credentials and accused his former boss of wanting to shake down the suspects for drug money. He offered no evidence to back up that charge.

Before the cocaine was burned, it was tested, and that seemed to quell widespread fears that the haul had been tampered with over the year and a half since it was seized. The prevailing rumor was that corrupt officials had replaced cocaine with flour and made off with the real stuff, selling it to Europe.

That would sound like a far-fetched tale, if several flight attendants from Kenya Airways had not been found carrying cocaine from Kenya to Amsterdam and London around the same time.

"It was rather suspicious," said a diplomat tracking the case.


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