The sentencing of confessed drug trafficker Baktash Akasha has been postponed to July 25 following a prosecution move to present evidence linking him to the murder of a drug dealer in South Africa.
Judge Victor Marrero, who has been presiding over the Akasha case in a federal court in New York, agreed on Wednesday to reschedule the sentencing that had been set for April 19.
Baktash and his younger brother Ibrahim, who is due to be sentenced on July 26, are both facing terms ranging from 10 years to life imprisonment.
In a document filed earlier last week, US prosecutors urged Judge Marrero to impose the maximum sentence on Baktash, whom they describe as “a lifelong criminal of epic proportions”.
To support their call for a life term, the US government's attorneys seek to rebut a claim by Baktash’s defence attorney that he played no part in the 2014 contract killing of the drug gangster identified only as “Pinky.”
Baktash has not been formally charged with taking part in a murder conspiracy, but prosecutors asked Judge Marrero to take his alleged involvement into account in deciding on a sentence.
The US attorneys told the judge they will present recorded conversations and testimony by a co-operating witness at a special hearing that will firmly link Baktash to the killing.
Prosecutors maintain that Baktash, along with Ibrahim and their associate Vijay Goswami, decided to have Pinky murdered after he threatened the Akasha brothers and Mr Goswami.
The three leading figures in the Akasha Organisation wanted “to have Pinky killed in a public way to convey a message that the group would not tolerate such threats,” the prosecutors say in their court filing.
“Based on their agreement, Mr Goswami coordinated the murder of Pinky in South Africa, and the killer shot Pinky 32 times in the streets of South Africa, killing him.”
Mr Goswami, an Indian national, was indicted along with the Akashas, but, unlike them, has not pleaded guilty to charges of drug smuggling and bribing Kenyan officials.
It is believed that Mr Goswami agreed last year to cooperate with the prosecution. He has not appeared in court for several months.
According to prosecutors, Mr Goswami told an undercover US agent that he had sent flowers to Pinky’s funeral and had called another South African drug dealer to say he was “sorry about your right hand man”.
Before Pinky’s murder, prosecutors added, Baktash had severely beaten a suspected drug-dealing rival and later bragged to a US undercover agent that he had administered the beating in order to show “Mombasa is mine, and I’m taking it back.”
The US attorney’s latest court filing also aims to refute the contention by Baktash’s lawyer that his client should be given a shorter prison sentence because his confessed crimes did not do actual harm to US citizens.
Defence attorney George Goltzer also argued in a court filing earlier in April that bribes paid by Baktash “did not corrupt already corrupted Kenyan officials”.
Describing Kenya as “a remarkably corrupt society,” Mr Goltzer said the unnamed officials paid off by Baktash “had, for a long time, held their hand out for payments in exchange for any service a government employee could corruptly provide”.
In response, prosecutors assert that Baktash had “for decades” participated in the distribution of “multi-tonne quantities of methaqualone, hashish, and heroin, among other substances, to locations all over the world”.
Mr Goltzer had noted that “not even a single gramme” of heroin had reached the US as part of a 99 kilogrammes shipment of heroin that Baktash has admitted trying to export to the US and that was seized by authorities.
Prosecutors responded that “this quantity, staggering and deadly in its own right, represented merely a fraction of the illegal drugs that the defendant and his co-conspirators hoped to distribute for sale in the United States”.
Baktash had arranged for an additional 500 kilogrammes of heroin to be shipped from the Afghanistan-Pakistan region toward Kenya, the US attorneys said.
He intended to send that half-tonne of heroin to the US, but the drugs were diverted following his arrest in Kenya in November 2014, prosecutors recounted.
“Thus,” they wrote, “the defendant is accountable at sentencing for conspiring to import 599 kilograms of heroin into the United States.”
That quantity is “staggering,” the prosecutors added, noting that it would represent “millions of doses of heroin on the streets of New York.”
As for the Akashas’ bribery of “dozens of officials and political operatives” in Kenya, the prosecutors observed that they are not alleging that the Akashas “created a culture of corruption in Kenya”.
“What the defendant did — and what he tries to distract from — is pay bribe after bribe, for year after year, to both carry on his drug business and then to avoid extradition to the United States,” the US attorneys wrote.
“That the defendant claims to not be the first person to participate in this corruption is entirely beside the point.”
“Their corruption was staggering and rampant.”
The prosecution pointed out that the Akashas’ bribery schemes enabled them to obtain bail after their arrest in Kenya in 2014 and then won them repeated adjournments of court dates related to the US government’s attempt to have them extradited.
Imposing less than a maximum sentence on Baktash could cause the US to view Kenya as an untrustworthy partner in international law enforcement, the prosecutors suggested.
“If actors like the defendant are allowed to act with impunity — and allowed to corrupt foreign law enforcement partners and foreign judiciary systems — such behaviour calls into question the ability of our government to rely upon these partners in the future,” the US attorneys told Judge Marrero.
Such a situation could, in turn, create “a risk that similar acts will go unpunished,” the prosecutors said.
Baktash “used his illegally obtained funds to wage a campaign against law and order, with great success for a number of years,” they added.
“Anyone considering similar conduct in the future must receive a clear message that this behaviour will not be tolerated by the American justice system.” A stiff sentence for Baktash, the US attorneys declared, “would leave no doubt regarding how such behaviour is treated in the United States.”