The US judge presiding over the Akasha brothers’ drug-trafficking case suggested on Friday that he accepts a witness’ claim that Baktash and Ibrahim Akasha were involved in plotting the murder of a South African narcotics trafficker.
Judge Victor Marrero said at the conclusion of a two-hour court session that he was “inclined” to believe witness Vijay Goswami’s account of the 2014 contract killing of the drug dealer identified only as Pinky.
The judge’s view of this matter will prove decisive in determining whether Baktash and Ibrahim spend the rest of their lives in a US maximum-security prison. The brothers have already confessed to conspiring to smuggle quantities of heroin and methamphetamine into the United States. They have also pleaded guilty to obstructing justice by bribing numerous – and so far unnamed – Kenyan officials.
It is now solely up to Judge Marrero to decide what length of sentences to impose on the Akashas. US federal court guidelines in a case such as this one call for prison terms ranging from 10 years to life without parole.
US prosecutors had summoned Goswami as the sole witness in a special two-day hearing intended primarily to persuade Judge Marrero that Ibrahim in particular had directly engaged in violence or arranged for it to be inflicted. The prosecution wants Ibrahim to be seen as deserving of a maximum sentence.
Despite Judge Marrero’s comments on Friday favouring the prosecution’s case, defence attorneys for Baktash and Ibrahim said following the court session that they think it unlikely that their respective clients will be sentenced to life.
In brief interviews with the Nation, the two lawyers posed the possibility Judge Marrero could be swayed by mitigating circumstances to choose lesser sentences.
Dawn Cardi, the attorney for 30-year-old Ibrahim Akasha, added that she believes her client will receive a lesser sentence than will 42-year-old Baktash. She said Ibrahim has been shown to have played a lesser role in the brothers’ drug-trafficking organisation.
Uncertainties as to the Akashas’ fate will be dispelled at sentencing sessions now scheduled to take place on August 16 for Baktash and on November 8 for Ibrahim.
Friday’s hearing in a wood-panelled, 15th-floor courtroom with sweeping views of the downtown Manhattan skyline consisted mostly of sparring between defence lawyers and US prosecutors regarding Goswami’s credibility.
Ms Cardi and George Goltzer, the attorney representing Baktash Akasha, sought to show that Goswami, a confessed drug trafficker and murderer, had lied about the Akashas in his testimony in hopes of avoiding prison time of his own in the US.
Goswami was arrested on drug charges in Kenya in 2014 along with the Akashas and a fourth figure in the case, Pakistani national Gulam Hussein. All four men were ordered expelled from Kenya in 2017 and were immediately placed in the custody of US agents who flew the Akashas, Goswami and Hussein to New York where they had been indicted on drug-smuggling and other charges. All have been confined in detention centres in New York for the past two-and-a-half years.
Mr Goltzer suggested at one point in court on Friday that Goswami will be set free through his potential inclusion in a US government witness-protection programme. “They love him!” Mr Goltzer exclaimed in regard to US prosecutors who had entered into a cooperation agreement with Goswami.
There is no evidence, however, that the government’s lawyers have made such a commitment to set Goswami free in exchange for his testimony implicating the Akasha brothers in murder and other acts of violence.
Mr Goltzer challenged Goswami’s testimony on several points on Friday, including the claim Baktash had arranged the killing of the man who murdered his drug-dealing father on an Amsterdam street on May 3, 2000.
The reprisal killing supposedly carried out at Baktash’s instigation was said to have occurred on the same date, one year later, as the assassination of Ibrahim Akasha, the brothers’ father and the head of the drug syndicate they inherited.
Judge Marrero said at the end of Friday’s session he would focus only on Baktash’s and Ibrahim’s alleged roles in the murder of Pinky and on claims that Ibrahim had engaged in additional acts of violence as well.
“How could Baktash know who had killed his father?” Mr Goltzer asked in a presentation to the court following Goswami's testimony. He said no one had been arrested for the murder of the Akashas' father. “How would he know where to find the assassin?”
Lead US prosecutor Amanda Houle countered that Baktash was recorded making comments to an undercover US Drug Enforcement Agency source in which he claimed that he had set up the murder of his father's murderer.
It was not Goswami alone who has made this claim, Ms Houle noted. Baktash had too, she said.
Attorney Goltzer said that in the tape recording it was actually Goswami who told the clandestine US agent that Baktash had ordered the revenge killing in Amsterdam. Mr Goltzer said Baktash could be heard in the background exclaiming “'Right! Right! Right!” as Goswami related this version of events. The defence attorney suggested that Baktash's interjections should be taken as the baseless boasting of a drug lord trying to demonstrate his ruthlessness.
Ms Houle defended Goswami's credibility in her presentations to the court on Friday. “There hasn't been a single lie that's been identified” in Goswami's testimony, the lead US prosecutor said.
On her part, defence attorney Cardi took aim at Goswami's seemingly contradictory accounts of Ibrahim's involvement in violent incidents. She argued that aspects of what Goswami said about Ibrahim on the witness box on Thursday were inconsistent with what he had told US prosecutors in transcribed assertions he made during the two-and-a-half years he has been held in New York detention centres.
Rejecting Goswami's depiction of Ibrahim as a violent, gun-wielding thug, Ms Cardi declared, “It is absolutely clear that my client's conduct does not rise to the level of life in prison.” She went on to describe Ibrahim as a “gopher” — slang for someone who goes for errands — and as “a delivery boy and someone who had taken people to the zoo.”
That last characterisation refers to Goswami's statement on Thursday that Ibrahim had accompanied a Chinese drug trafficker on a safari in Nairobi National Park in 2014. That “public relations” outing, Goswami said, was intended to help persuade the drug dealer to accept the Akashas' offer for the purchase of large amounts of a substance used in manufacturing Mandrax, an illegal sedative.
As part of her attempts to discredit Goswami's character, Ms Cardi added that he had testified to his ability to sleep at night even though he had murdered several people. She also mocked Goswami's claim on the witness box that he had followed a code among drug dealers requiring them to always tell the truth.
Those statements by Goswami were “shocking,” Ms Cardi said.
She and Mr Goltzer also pointed out that Goswami had managed to have a life sentence in Dubai reduced to 15-and-a-half years, possibly in return for his acknowledged co-operation with Dubai intelligence agents.
The defence lawyers noted that Goswami has admitted making millions of dollars by arranging money laundering schemes and drug deals from his Dubai prison cell via mobile phone. Goswami did not mention those activities in his eventually successful application for mercy in regard to his Dubai prison sentence, defence attorneys noted, suggesting that this omission amounted to lying.
The lawyers for Ibrahim and Baktash argued that in similar fashion Goswami has lied to US prosecutors in his bid to receive a lesser, or no, prison sentence.
Seeking to mitigate the guilt of his client, Mr Goltzer argued that it was Goswami, not Baktash, who had organised a shipment of heroin from Afghanistan, to Tanzania, and on to Kenya that had been destined for export to the United States.
Baktash's attorney emphasised that not a single gramme of heroin had actually entered the US as part of the Akashas' smuggling conspiracy. The plot was disrupted before the shipment could be sent.
Goswami was ultimately seeking to displace Baktash as the head of the Mombasa-based drug-trafficking operation, Mr Goltzer suggested.
The lawyer contended that Goswami wanted to align himself with a rival Kenya drug ring run by Ali Punjani.
Baktash's defence attorney further maintained that Goswami's move to enlist his South Africa-based brother-in-law, Dennis Jedburgh, in murdering Pinky had been motivated in part by a desire to position Jedburgh as the top figure in the lucrative Mandrax trade in South Africa. Goswami had been angling not only to set himself up as the kingpin heroin dealer in East Africa but also to take control of the Mandrax operation in South Africa, Mr Goltzer theorised.
Judge Marrero said at the end of Friday's session that he would focus only on Baktash's and Ibrahim's alleged roles in the murder of Pinky and on claims that Ibrahim had engaged in additional acts of violence as well. The other elements of Goswami's testimony contested by the defence attorneys would not be relevant to his deliberations, the judge indicated.
The judge suggested that in complicated international cases such as this one it is not unusual for a witness who is co-operating with prosecutors to construct a narrative in a piecemeal fashion. A plot line can be put into place session-by-session as a witness refreshes his memory over time, Judge Marrero said, noting that Goswami had met with US prosecutors on about 50 occasions since 2017.
Apparent discrepancies in assertions by a witness such as Goswami may be due to “a flaw in the process” whereby US prosecutors seek to obtain material implicating other figures in a case, the judge added.
“Even if Mr Goswami was inconsistent, it doesn't necessarily mean he lied” in regard to the Akashas' actions, Judge Marrero said.
“My view is that Mr Goswami, in outlining, is credible in what he says.”
Neither Baktash nor Ibrahim reacted demonstratively as they were led out of the courtroom by US marshals at the conclusion of Friday's hearing. The two men were returned to detention cells where they must wait additional amounts of time before learning whether they will ever breathe freely again.