— Jury expected to announce ‘guilty’ or ‘not guilty’ verdict
The trial of the four individuals accused of smuggling the largest ever quantity of drugs in the history of Liberia is expected to end today, with a guilty or not guilty verdict from the jury.
The case grew from the government's seizure of 520kg of cocaine in 2022 worth about US$100 million, according to law enforcement officials. A Liberian named Oliver Zayzay and three foreigners were arrested for allegedly seeking to purchase the cocaine, which the government claimed was smuggled among pig feet from Brazil.
The accused — Makki Ahmed Issam, Adulai Djalo, Oliver Zayzay, and Malam Conte — are being prosecuted on charges of “money laundering, unlicensed possession of controlled drugs, unlicensed importation of controlled drugs, and criminal conspiracy.”
The accused had allegedly offered to pay the owners of the container, AJA Group Holdings, the sum of US$200,000 for the entire container which, at the time, cost less than US$30,000, according to the prosecution’s chief witness.
According to TRH Trading, the accused doubled their offer to US$400,000 within less than eight hours, and finally to US$1 million. This situation raised a red flag for TRH Trading, who contacted the United States Ambassador, who then passed the information to the Liberian security officials.
This claim, which was also repeated in court, is key to the prosecution’s arguments, even though it has been denied by the accused.
If the jurors believe that the prosecution was able to prove their argument beyond a reasonable doubt, they will announce a guilty verdict. The prison term will then be determined by the judge.
In Liberia, drug trafficking is considered a serious offense. However, 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.
Historically, Liberia’s drug laws provided for penalties including imprisonment and fines for drug offenses. The maximum penalty for drug trafficking offenses, according to the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act of 2014, ranges from several years up to life imprisonment.
However, if the jurors do not believe that the prosecution had a strong case or that the evidence was not enough, they will return a non-guilty verdict in favor of the accused, who have been in jail since September of 2022.
The case has been challenging and has experienced several delays. 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 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 their additional witnesses, despite requesting extensions on multiple occasions, implies a lack of sufficient evidence to prove their 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.
As for the defense lawyers, they 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.
The jury is now deliberating and is expected to return a verdict later today.