Two men sentenced to life imprisonment over record drug haul

Two men sentenced to life imprisonment over record drug haul
April 02 10:19 2017

Two Maldivian men were found guilty last week of smuggling 24kg of heroin into the Maldives in March 2014 and sentenced to life imprisonment.

The criminal court on Monday also imposed a fine of MVR100,000 (US$6,500) each on Abdulla Sofwath and Ismail Moosa.

The 24kg of heroin was seized from a dinghy near Hulhumalé in a major operation that lasted for several days. As of June last year, it was the largest drug haul from a police operation in the country’s history.

The street value of the drugs was estimated to be worth MVR 100 million (US$6.5 million).

The drugs were found concealed under fibre boards in a dinghy. According to the police, it was smuggled into the Maldives in a vessel registered in Iran named Hormuz.

Sofwath and Ismail were the only ones to stand trial of the 18 suspects taken into custody, including 11 Pakistanis, four Maldivians, and three Bangladeshis.

The Pakistanis were later deported and the other suspects were released due to lack of evidence.

The trial of the two Maldivians concluded in May 2016 with both the prosecution and defence presenting closing arguments.

The prosecution told the court that the dinghy was registered under Sofwath and Ismail’s names whilst witness testimonies prove that both men collected the drugs from the Iranian boat.

Call recordings from Ismail’s phone were also submitted as evidence to show that he was an accomplice.

A piece of paper was found in Sofwath’s pocket with GPS coordinates and the phone number of Ismail’s wife, the prosecution noted.

Sofwath also told the police during the investigation that the drugs were smuggled to pay off his debts.

The defence lawyer meanwhile contended that there were glaring contradictions in the witness testimonies. He also argued that the phone recording was inadmissible as it was obtained without a court warrant.

But Judge Abdul Bari Yousuf ruled that the prosecution’s evidence was sufficient to prove guilt.

Convictions in high-profile drug trafficking cases are rare in the Maldives.

Petty drug users are often arrested and charged with possession, but law enforcement authorities have a history of releasing suspected drug traffickers. 

According to a 2012 UN report, there are 7,496 drug addicts in the Maldives. However, critics say the real figure is likely to be much higher as the country’s entrenched drug problem has grown to endemic proportions during the past three decades.

In a detailed account of the operation that netted the 24kg of heroin, the police said they listened to phone conversations between the two suspected local smugglers and their Iranian counterpart and followed them for several days.

A 16-member team was involved in monitoring the movements of a local boat called Violet between March 4 and 10, which met the Iranian vessel Hormuz at a rendezvous point 30 nautical miles outside the Maldives Exclusive Economic Zone.

Hormuz had set sail from Iran’s Chahbahar seaport.

A small dinghy was offloaded from Hormuz onto Violet. When Violet reached Hulhumalé, the two local smugglers boarded the dinghy and were arrested from the island’s lagoon that night. The remaining arrests were made the next day on March 11.

The four locals arrested include the two primary smugglers, captain of Violet, and a police officer who used a local money transfer service to send money to an Iranian agent. The latter suspect was released without charges.

Hormuz was later stopped seven nautical miles outside the Maldives’ EEZ.