Liberia: Supreme Court Orders Gov’t to Return US$113K to Men Acquitted in US$100M Cocaine Case
Associate Justice Yamie Quiqui Gbeisay has denied a writ of prohibition filed by the government through the Ministry of Justice challenging the return of US$113l to the acquitted defendants in the US$100M cocaine case.
The Gbeisay decision on May 24, comes after the Ministry had filed a writ of prohibition asking the Supreme Court to place a stay order on releasing the money seized from the four acquitted individuals. The Justice instead upheld the order of Judge Blamo Dixon of Criminal Court ‘C’ who presided over the case and instructed the government to return the US$113,000 seized from four defendants who were set free.
The men, defendants Malam Conte, Adulai Djibril Djalo, Makki Ahmad Issam, and Oliver A. Zayzay, have since left the country after the historic verdict last week.
The men were accused by the government of shipping cocaine worth US$100million to the country. They were investigated, charged with the commission of Money Laundering, Unlicensed Possession of Controlled Drugs, Unlicensed Importation of Controlled Drugs, and sent to court for prosecution.
But an empaneled jury acquitted the men. According to the jury, the accused had no knowledge of the cocaine smuggling operation, as claimed by the government, and that the US$200k seized from the men be returned.
Though initially, the ministry had challenged the not guilty verdict of the empaneled jury in favor of the four defendants, however, they moved an application before the Supreme Court, where they had accused Dixon of insinuating that "if the jury returns with a not guilty verdict the US$210,000 taken from the defendants will be immediately returned."
The government said that the money in question is actually US$113,000, and not US$200,000, and that it was confiscated from one Gustavo Henrique who was tried in absentia and was not among those acquitted by the lower court.
It claimed Judge Dixon was in error to inform the jurors that the money will be turned over to the defendants if they were ruled not guilty.
The government added that it was not in the judge’s purview to issue such an order, and that the money in question does not belong to any of the defendants that were acquitted, but was reportedly provided by Henrique to purchase a container.
The petition maintained that as a consequence of the Judge’s charge, the trial Jury returned with a ‘NOT GUILTY’ verdict for the four crimes. The government also argued that Henrique absconded from Liberia upon learning of the arrest of Malam Conte on October 1, 2022, and was never brought under the jurisdiction of the court.
"For the State to return any money, it has to be based upon a process initiated by Gustavo Henrique, and not any of the four individuals," the government said in its justification to keep custody of the money.
However, Associate Justice Gbeisay in Wednesday’s ruling dismissed the ministry's pleas to keep being in possession of the money, contrary to Dixon's order. "In view of the above, we find no merit in issuing the writ petition for prohibition. The same is accordingly denied," said Justice Gbeisay, while pronouncing the verdict.
The ministry challenged the order passed by Judge Dixon on May 18, requesting them to immediately release the money from the Central Bank of Liberia (CBL), which they believe influenced the jury's not guilty verdict.
The ministry had insisted that the money was confiscated during the arrest of one of the four defendants, Malam Conte, at the compound of TRH Trading, the company that shipped the cocaine in the country.
The 520kg haul of the illicit substance was seized by authorities in 2022 among containers that TRH Trading had imported from Brazil. The drugs were estimated to be worth over US$100 million, making it one of the largest drug-related cases in the country’s history.
According to TRH Trading, which is a subsidiary of AJA Group Holdings, the accused allegedly offered to pay US$200,000 for a single container of frozen foods, on which the cocaine was smuggled, which at the time cost less than US$30,000.
The accused, the consignee said, 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 passed the information to Liberian security officials.
But Judge Dixon’s who read the jury verdict found the alleged smugglers not guilty of all criminal charges, a verdict the government has described as appalling and shameful, and that it undermined the country’s effort to clamp down on the illegal transit of illicit drugs.
The acquittal, the government says, lends credence to the widely held international and local perception that the judiciary is inherently compromised, and ignited the debate as to whether the judicial system should continue with the age-old jury-trial process, which has been susceptible to jury tampering.
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