Kenya jails ivory kingpin for 20 years


Paula Kahumbu, The Guardian

Date Published

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On Friday, a Mombasa law court sentenced Feisal Mohamed Ali to 20 years in jail after finding him guilty of illegal possession of ivory worth 44 million shillings (US $440,000). The court also imposed a fine of 20 million shillings.

This landmark ruling by the Kenyan court is the end of a long story that began with the seizure of 2 tonnes of ivory at Fuji Motors car yard in Mombasa in June 2014.

After more than 2 years of uncertainty and high drama, this exemplary sentence is justice for elephants. In a press statement, the Kenya Wildlife Service said:

The guilty verdict is a strong message to all networks of poaching gangs, ivory smugglers, financiers, middlemen and shippers that Kenya will not watch as its elephant population is decimated or its territory used as a conduit for traffickers.

Feisal Mohamed Ali is a well-known member of the business community in Mombasa. A warrant for his arrest was issued soon after the seizure of the ivory in Mombasa, but he was able to evade capture. Exactly how this happened has never been adequately explained.

Although the warrant for his arrest had been issued, civil society organisations voiced their concern about the lack of effort being made to track him down. On 12 August, on behalf of my NGO WildlifeDirect, I presented a letter signed by 400 Kenyans to David Kimaiyo, the then Inspector General of Police, urging him to make good the arrest warrant.

The turning point came in October when, following a landmark request by the Kenyan Government, Interpol issued a Red Notice identifying Feisal Mohamed Ali as one of the world’s most wanted environmental crime fugitives. WildlifeDirect publicised the arrest warrant by running a full page ‘Wanted’ advert in several newspapers.

Feisal was arrested in Tanzania on Christmas Eve 2014 and returned to Mombasa to face trial.

The trial itself was dogged by irregularities. The major evidence in the case, 9 motor vehicles that were under police custody, allegedly “disappeared” and a ruling on the inquiry as to the evidence tampering is yet to be delivered.

At one point, the magistrate handling the case granted Feisal Mohamed bond, overturning a previous high court ruling. A few weeks later, a new magistrate was assigned to the case. She opted to restart proceedings, but within days, the scene of crime, the Fuji Motors building in Mombasa, was demolished.

Throughout the court proceedings WildlifeDirect has held a watching brief on behalf of civil society, communities in Kenya that derive their livelihoods from wildlife—and elephants. Legal interns have acted as courtroom monitors, ensuring that the public is kept up-to-date on progress in the case and alerted when irregularities occur.

This work is not without its risks. Members of the courtroom monitoring team have been threatened by thugs on the stairs of the Mombasa court.

Courtroom monitoring is also not cheap. When hundreds of elephants are being killed across Africa by poachers every week, it might be argued that the money could be better spent protecting elephants on the ground.

Fortunately we have been supported by far-sighted donors who have understood the need for a joined-up strategy in the battle against wildlife crime.

Our ‘Eyes in the Courtroom’ project that monitors trials across Kenya is funded by Save The Elephants, through the Elephant Crisis Fund at the Wildlife Conservation Network. The Whitley Foundation provided additional funding for the watching brief at the trial of Feisal Mohamed.

Kenya’s massive ivory burn at the end of April received huge global publicity, as a powerful statement of intent. The message was simple: Kenya will never condone or benefit from the slaughter of elephants for their tusks.

But this grand statement would be meaningless if it was not accompanied by concrete policing measures to protect elephants in the wild and apprehend poachers and traffickers. And arrests are meaningless unless those arrested are properly tried and, if convicted, punished.

It is often assumed that courts throughout Africa are both inefficient and corrupt. But calls to improve the situation carry little weight if they are based on anecdotal evidence. In 2013, WildlifeDirect published its first Courtroom Monitoring Report, providing concrete evidence of systemic failings in the prosecution of wildlife crimes.

Our conclusions, based on 5 years of courtroom monitoring, were stark. The vast majority of suspects in wildlife crime cases were walking free from the courts. Suspects were able to plead guilty and pay a paltry fine or, if they chose to contest the case, could be confident that it would be dismissed due to procedural irregularities.

This report was a wake-up call and led to a series of measures being taken. A new law was passed providing for vastly increased penalties for convicted wildlife criminals, up to life imprisonment in some cases. A specialist Wildlife Crime Prosecution Unit was set up, training and procedural guidelines were provided to prosecutors and magistrates.

Our second report, published this year, shows an improving situation. Case management has improved, conviction rates in contested trials have increased and penalties for those convicted have got tougher.

But our report found the system was mostly effective against low-level criminals. The kingpins—the high level traffickers who control the ivory trade—were still evading justice. We concluded: no high level trafficker has yet been convicted and sentenced by Kenyan courts.

Until yesterday. The Feisal case is hugely significant because it means that another key element in Kenya’s joined-up strategy to defeat wildlife crime is in place. It fixes a hole in the net that is being drawn around poachers and traffickers.

This is not quite the end of the story as Feisal’s lawyers will be appealing against the conviction and sentence and prosecution will appeal against the acquittal of his five co-defendants.

But the conviction itself is a huge milestone and conservationists can breathe a sigh of relief. Acquittal in this case would have been a catastrophe. To Kenyans in wider society, increasingly concerned about corruption, the outcome of the case sends a positive message that justice can be achieved, with a lot of work and focused attention.

Political will, effective policing on the ground and enforcement of the rule of law in the courts are three essential pillars of a successful anti-wildlife crime strategy. The fourth pillar is public support. It was essential to keep the case in the public eye; otherwise I am certain it would have quietly ‘disappeared’ from the files on ongoing cases. Instead, continual pressure from the general public, civil society organisations and the media was able to ensure that justice was done.

I was heartened by the comments from the presiding judge, Hon. Diana Mochache, in pronouncing sentence. They showed how far the conservationist message is getting across to wider society. Wildlife conservation is becoming a mainstream issue in Kenya.

The judge reminded the court that elephants are part of Kenya’s national heritage and a source of pride, as shown by their widespread use in corporate branding. She said that poaching is a menace in Kenya and warned that if nothing was done to stop it children in the future would only know elephants from what they read in books. She also urged people not to wear ivory ornaments.

She concluded by saying that in this case more than 150 elephants were killed to supply the ivory involved: the court had to put away the people who committed these crimes, as an example for those behind the poaching menace in the country.

This is an excellent result for the people of Kenya and for elephants. It shows that with the necessary support from the Kenya Wildlife Service, prosecution agencies and the judiciary, a just and powerful result can be delivered.