25 July 2001

Kenya: Did Drug Pusher Bribe Warders?

Last week's mysterious escape from prison by a Somali woman facing a Sh6.5 million drug charge was is a major blow to the fight against drug traffic and abuse.

Five days after Ms Sophia Abdi alias Timiro Farah Anyanle escaped, Kenyans are yet to be told how this happened and who was responsible.

Did money change hands on July 19, when Ms Abdi vanished only six hours after she was charged in a Nairobi court with pushing 6.5 kg of heroin? That is the million-dollar question many Kenyans are asking.

Ms Abdi was arrested at Nairobi's Wilson Airport on July 17 on arrival from Mogadishu, reportedly with the drugs concealed in her luggage. But she disappeared in mysterious circumstances only a few hours after she was taken before Nairobi's Principal Magistrate Christine Meoli.

The Commissioner of Prisons, Mr Abraham Kamakil, says she escaped when a prison lorry collided with a van on Mbagathi Way, Nairobi, and that her whereabouts are unknown.

A warder and the van's driver died on the spot, while 26 prisoners were injured. The lorry was carrying 28 prisoners and 15 officers. The prisoners were being taken to the Lang'ata Women's Prison after mention of their cases at the High Court building, about 10 kilometres away, and other courts. Why just her? Although prison authorities insist she escaped when the lorry overturned, they are unable to explain how and why she was the only one who did so. Prison lorries transporting prisoners are always locked from outside and the keys kept by a warder. The warder is normally armed and does not share the same compartment with prisoners.

For a prisoner to move out of a lorry, the warder with the keys must alight, go to the back and unlock it. Bearing in mind that the lorry rolled and all the occupants were injured or shaken by the impact, how did Ms Abdi escape?

Immediately after the accident, armed security personnel threw a cordon round the lorry. In fact, warders at the scene said all the prisoners had been accounted for. It wasn't until the next day that information leaked out that Ms Abdi had escaped.

Not surprising, prison authorities declined to comment on the matter and even the police department was in the dark as to how and when the suspect escaped.

Two senior policemen who visited the scene said warders insisted that no prisoner had escaped. The officer in charge of traffic in Nairobi, Mr Duke Okemwa, said: "When I visited the scene, prison warders gave me the breakdown of prisoners and officers on board. I found them searching for a pistol which had got lost and they told me no prisoner had escaped."

The warders did not provide the names of prisoners and wardresses involved in the accident. Kilimani divisional police chief Namwel Mochache, who also visited the scene, said the warders told him no prisoner had escaped.

"I kept on asking for the names of the prisoners, but the warders did not provide them. I gave up and left the scene," he said. Normally, the Prisons Department releases the names of escaped suspects to police for investigations.

Even the anti-narcotics police chief, Mr Michael Jackobam, was not put in the picture. Although the suspect was arrested and taken to court by his officers, Mr Jackobam says the Prisons Department has given them only scanty details of the escape.

Indeed, Ms Abdi might have broken away or was set free before the accident, which could have been stage-managed. Magistrate Mole and the police have rejected the accident explanation by the prison authorities. "It starts at the end rather than at the beginning," the magistrate said.

The court ordered prison authorities to furnish it with a detailed report of Ms Abide's movements on the material day, by next week.

And the police department has appointed a team of senior CID detectives from the Nairobi headquarters to investigate the matter. They will scrutinise court and prison records and interrogate all the warders who escorted prisoners that day. A top police officer said: "We want to know the truth. All those who were in the lorry were injured. How come only the drug trafficker escaped unhurt? The explanation cannot convince anybody."

A similar row emerged between the police and the prison department a year ago over the mysterious escape from custody of a Pakistani national facing charges of drug trafficking .

Mr Saeed Rana's escape story sounded like a movie script. He had been taken to Kenyatta National Hospital (KNH) for medical check-up and he escaped while being escorted by two unarmed warders back to the Industrial Area remand prison.

According to the warders, a car pulled up at the KNH bus terminus as they were waiting for transport. It had three occupants, who offered them a lift.

The car drove to Parklands, Nairobi, where the trio kicked out the warders and sped off with the trafficker. He is still at large.

Police wondered why the warders were not armed and why they didn't use a prison vehicle yet the man they were escorting was a notorious drug pusher facing charges of trafficking 2.4 kg of heroin. The two warders were arrested and later charged in court with helping a prisoner to escape. They were granted Sh 20,000 bond.

A long-serving police detective says a lot of money changes hands whenever a drug suspect vanishes mysteriously. Somebody high up "Junior officers escorting prisoners would not have the guts to strike a deal with them to let them escape. It must be the work of somebody in authority," he says.

The police say courts also frustrate the war against drug trafficking by freeing suspects on bail. The majority of drug traffickers are foreigners. The crime is serious. implications for the health of citizens and the development of any nation.

Police argue that suspects should remain in prison until their cases are concluded because it has become common for courts to grant bail to foreigners granted bail to abscond.

Mr Jackobam said statistics indicate that since 1995, 18 foreigners charged in Nairobi with illegal possession of I l kg and 962 grammes of heroin and 530 grammes of cocaine had jumped bail.

"This is compounded by the fact that their sureties provide fictitious names and addresses, making it difficult to trace them. Also, securities such as title deeds and log books are usually fictitious."

Foreigners should be denied bail on grounds that:

They have no family or community ties in Kenya;

They have no reason to stay in Kenya;

The offence is very serious;

Drugs are of high value;

Sureties do not really know the suspects, some of whom are first-time visitors to the country; and,

There is a high likelihood of absconding.

"These reasons have been advanced in affidavits sworn by investigating officers as grounds for opposing bail, but to no avail," said Mr Jackobam. And when suspects abscond, the courts issue warrants and direct the same officers to arrest them. Of course, by then they suspects have left the country.

The writer is the Nation's Chief Crime Reporter

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