Somali Drug Convictions Upheld in 4th Circuit

     (CN) – Thirteen men convicted of trafficking khat, a drug-containing plant common in the Middle East but largely unknown in the United States, knew that their actions were illegal, the 4th Circuit ruled.
     Khat is the common name for the Catha edulis, a plant that primarily grows on the Arabian Peninsula and in parts of East Africa. When chewed or mixed in tea, khat leaves deliver stimulant effects from its cathinone content.
     Legal in several East African and Middle Eastern countries, the plant is even a common part of social life in Somalia and Yemen comparable to caffeine in the United States.
     But in the United States, cathinone is a Schedule I controlled substance, making it is illegal to possess, buy or sell khat.
     Federal prosecutors indicted 17 men from Somalia or Yemen for conspiracy to traffic khat, and 13 of these individuals pleaded not guilty, claiming that they did not know cathinone was a controlled substance or that khat contained cathinone.
     A jury convicted them on all charges, and the 4th Circuit affirmed Thursday, finding that the defendants conducted themselves in a manner showing that they knew khat was illegal.
     “Telephone conversations among conspirators often referred to methods of avoiding police suspicion and to interceptions of khat at the border,” and the defendants used the code word “CDs” to refer to khat over the phone, according to the judgment.
     “Money collected from the sale of khat was also treated surreptitiously and awkwardly to avoid suspicion, as payments were broken into parts and sent to suppliers in the United Kingdom and Africa under altered or false names, and the record is replete with evidence of how such payments were designed to avoid any linkage with khat trafficking,” Judge Paul Niemeyer wrote for a three-member panel. “It is almost impossible to conclude that any defendant did not know of at least some illegal aspects of the enterprise because the conspiracy continued for years.”
     The defendants also denied that they even used khat when in their initial interviews with FBI agents, until informed about the interception of their telephone calls showing that they knew their actions needed to be hidden from law enforcement.
     “When viewing the evidence in a light most favorable to the government, we conclude that a rational trier of fact could have found the defendants guilty beyond a reasonable doubt,” Niemeyer said.
     The court also rejected the defendant’s claims that the jury was improperly instructed and that the trial court erred in excluding defendant’s expert testimony.
     The 7th Circuit upheld similar convictions against khat distributors earlier this year.

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