Windhoek — Four Chinese nationals convicted for the illegal possession of rhino horns, but acquitted on the main count of money laundering, were on Friday convicted on that charge on appeal in the Windhoek High Court.
The four were caught with 14 rhino horns and one leopard skin in their luggage at the Hosea Kutako International Airport in 2014. Subsequently, they were found guilty of unlawful possession of wildlife products and unlawful export of wildlife products, but acquitted on the main count of money laundering.
Acting Judge Alfred Siboleka, in concurrence with Judge Dinnah Usiku, dismissed the appeal of Li Xiaoling, 32, on the conviction of unlawful possession and dealing in controlled wildlife products and the appeals of Li Zhibing, 55, Pu Xuexin, 51, and Wang Hui, 42, on the convictions of unlawful possession of controlled wildlife products.
The judges further upheld the prosecution's appeal against the discharge of the convicts on the count of money laundering. They were sentenced in the Windhoek Regional Court to prison terms of 14 years of which 30 and 28 months and five years were suspended for five years on condition they are not convicted of similar charges during the period of suspension.
Xiaoling, Zhibing and Xuexin were arrested by the police's Protected Wildlife Resources Unit at Hosea Kutako International Airport on March 24, 2014, trying to smuggle out of the country 14 rhino horns worth N$2.3 million and leopard skin worth N$50 000.
Hui, who was regarded as the kingpin of the smuggling operation, was arrested at a hotel in Windhoek in May 2015.
The four men were found guilty in the Windhoek Regional Court on September 16, 2016.
According to Judge Siboleka, who wrote the judgment, the evidence showed that the four men knew each other and worked together as a group.
He further said a very clear and credible unbroken chain of custody of the suitcases in which the rhino horns and leopard skin were found was proved beyond a reasonable doubt by the prosecution. The judge further said it is on that basis that he is of the considered view that the trial court materially erred in not convicting the four men on all three main counts.
"The two appellants, who were arrested with the products, were merely executing what the whole group agreed should be done," the judge said.
He continued: "In this case, it is very clear from the body of the whole evidence and the conduct of the group that they had agreed to take the products out of the country."
The judge further said the fact that Xiaoling agreed to take the blame on himself, according to testimony heard, is proof beyond a reasonable doubt that they were jointly and severally operating in common purpose as a group.
"This is unassailable credible acknowledgement that they were all aware of the 14 rhino horns and the leopard skin in the two suitcases," he added.
He further said the ultimate reason for being in possession of or dealing in rhino horns is to launder and to bring the tourism industry, which is the engine of the economy and wellbeing, to its knees. "In my view, being found in possession of these products is the worst kind of economic setback a foreign, or local national can commit on Namibian soil," Judge Siboleka stressed.
He further said if this subtle onslaught is not tackled with an iron fist, an irreparable damage to our wildlife is inevitable and certain. He then sentenced the four Chinese national to 20 years in prison each and suspended five years for a period of five years on condition they are not convicted of similar offences during the period of suspension.
The Chinese nationals were represented by Nambili Mhata from the Sisa Namandje stable and the state by Advocate Simba Nduna.