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Viewing cable 09FREETOWN85, COCAINE CASE NEARLY IMPLODES: PRESIDENT INTERVENES

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Reference ID Created Released Classification Origin
09FREETOWN85 2009-03-06 15:03 2010-12-25 21:09 SECRET Embassy Freetown
VZCZCXRO2324
RR RUEHPA
DE RUEHFN #0085/01 0651531
ZNY SSSSS ZZH
R 061531Z MAR 09
FM AMEMBASSY FREETOWN
TO RUEHC/SECSTATE WASHDC 2508
INFO RUEHZK/ECOWAS COLLECTIVE
RUEHBS/AMEMBASSY BRUSSELS 0337
RUEAWJA/DEPT OF JUSTICE WASHINGTON DC
S E C R E T SECTION 01 OF 02 FREETOWN 000085

SIPDIS

DEPARTMENT FOR AF/W (JHUNTER/ESPRUILL)
BRUSSELS FOR DEA (TSCARANTINO)
DOJ FOR DEA/OS/OSE (MCMANAMON/LENARTOWICZ)

E.O. 12958: DECL: 03/06/2019
TAGS: SNAR PGOV PREL SL
SUBJECT: COCAINE CASE NEARLY IMPLODES: PRESIDENT INTERVENES

REF: A. FREETOWN 78
B. FREETOWN 23

Classified By: Ambassador June Carter Perry for reasons 1.4 (b/d)

1. (S/NF) Summary: On March 5, emboffs learned from a
well-placed source within the government that the Attorney
General (AG) had secretly secured a deal with the foreign
defendants in the cocaine case to grant their release in
exchange for USD 2.5 million. According to our knowledge of
the deal, the defendants were to change their pleas to
"guilty" on March 6, be sentenced to a fine, and then be
released/deported. Ambassador spoke with Foreign Minister
Zainab Bangura on the evening of March 5, who immediately
contacted President Koroma in India. Bangura later relayed a
message from Koroma to the Ambassador -- no decisions will be
made in this case until the President returns next week. His
message appears to have also reached the ears of the
judiciary; on March 6, Justice Browne-Marke adjourned
proceedings in the case until March 13. While this is a
positive result in terms of USG interests, we will need to
tread softly with the government until the expulsion requests
have been honored. The President is clearly cognizant of the
importance of the case and plans to honor the promise he made
to Ambassador on February 27 (reftel A), but the AG could
create new obstacles. End Summary.

--------------------------------------------- ---------
THE DEAL: LINING POCKETS AS WELL AS GOVERNMENT COFFERS
--------------------------------------------- ---------

2. (S/NF) Source revealed to emboffs on March 5 that the AG
had been engaged in negotiations with the defense teams for
several weeks. His initial overtures requesting USD 2 million
per foreigner were deemed outrageously high, and they
eventually settled on USD 2.5 million for the entire group of
international accused (Note: The deal does not include the
Sierra Leonean defendants, though Ahmed Sesay could likely
afford to broker a similar deal. End Note). Source informed
emboffs that once the Department of Public Prosecutions (DPP)
rested their case as planned on March 6, the defendants, who
initially refused to plea, would change their pleas to
"guilty," pay their fine, and be free to go. Source was
unclear on the mechanics of the deal, how and if money had
already changed hands, how much of the money would go to the
AG personally, and if the release would include deportation.

3. (S/NF) Source said that the deal was agreed to on February
20, but was reticent to share this information with either
USG or UK representatives. Source later determined that this
type of corrupt practice could not be tolerated and came
forward, but remains fearful that the information leak will
be linked to him/her, and that there will be reprisals. The
UK received the information early in the day on March 5, and
SOCA-London shared the information with DEA officials. The
Freetown-based SOCA representative, however, did not/not
share the information with emboffs directly.

-------------------
PRESIDENTIAL ACTION
-------------------

4. (S/NF) Ambassador spoke to Foreign Minister Bangura on
March 5, who contacted the President on his trip to India.
Earlier in the day at a meeting of diplomatic corps COMs,
Bangura stated that the President had traveled to India the
night before, and that "they had even taken his cell phone
from him" to guarantee he relaxed on his trip (Note: The
first post heard of the trip was in a State House press
release on March 5. This press release was corrected on March
6 to say that Koroma is visiting the Indian Prime Minister,
and not merely vacationing, which the first release implied.
End note). Bangura later informed the Ambassador that Koroma
had stated that no action would be taken in the case while he
was away. While the subsequent lines of communication are
unknown, his edict must have reached the AG or the Chief
Justice, resulting in Browne-Marke granting an unexpected
one-week adjournment.

------------------
REACTIONS IN COURT
------------------

5. (S/NF) The defendants seemed surprised by the adjournment,
though it is difficult to fully observe their reactions from
the  vantage point of the courtroom's public gallery.
Browne-Marke adjourned the session to give the DPP "time to

FREETOWN 00000085  002 OF 002

assess if they want to call an additional witness before they
close their case," and was on the bench for less than ten
minutes - the shortest court session in the case's history.
Several of the foreign defendants, including Quintana-Perez
and Perez, spoke with their lawyer following the adjournment,
and also appeared to speak at-length with the courtroom
interpreter. Other defendants appeared unconcerned. Emboffs
noted that the defense teams were primarily represented by
junior barristers, with one senior attorney arriving to court
just as Browne-Marke departed. Given that the source said
that the defense teams are all owed significant amounts of
money, upwards of USD 200,000, as well as information post
received about the limited funds available to support the
defense (reftel B), their lack of engagement is unsurprising.
Post expects additional information from sources within the
defense on March 6.

-----------------------
POTENTIAL RAMIFICATIONS
-----------------------

6. (S/NF) Though the AG's actions appear corrupt, he can
protest his innocence by refuting the source's claims, or
stating that he is brokering a legal plea agreement. Post is
confident that the only government officials aware of the USG
expulsion requests to date are the President, Assistant to
the President, Foreign Minister, and Deputy Foreign Minister.
The AG is thus unaware of the promises made, and the impact
this deal would have on those promises. He can, and likely
will, state that he was operating with imperfect information
and was acting lawfully in the best interests of the case and
country.

7. (S/NF) Koroma's quick actions to ensure the proceedings
stay on-course will likely necessitate bringing the AG into
the fold on the expulsions. While this may not have any
deleterious impact, particularly if the AG and others are
informed that we plan to remove the three accused after the
judgment (making them still responsible for paying any
fines), he could deliberately erect legal roadblocks to serve
his own interests or simply inform the defense teams of the
plans. Though post has no information to suggest that the
expulsions are counter to Sierra Leonean law, the AG may find
or create issues depending on how well the defendants are
willing to compensate him for his services. Impossible to
read or predict, the AG could create problems where there
previously were none. If this occurs, however, Koroma would
likely override him to meet his own objectives.

-----------------------
COMMENT: MOVING FORWARD
-----------------------

8. (S/NF) Post believes that Koroma was unaware of the deal
until informed by the Foreign Minister. This trial is an
important political and diplomatic tool for the President; to
demonstrate to Sierra Leoneans that he is tough on criminal
issues, and to the international community that he will not
abide or accept naroctrafficking in his country. A release,
even with a sizable fine attached, would weaken his image
domestically and abroad, giving the impression that money
will sway him from his principles. The media would skewer him
for releasing the foreigners, given that the court of public
opinion has already found them guilty and deserving of
jail-time, as well as question the purpose and validity of
the National Narcotics Control Act, which was rushed into law
specifically for the purpose of trying these defendants. The
President will lose political capital if the defendants are
allowed to buy their way out of a jail sentence. Post is also
confident that Koroma would not make an empty promise to
honor the expulsion requests, and risk the ire of the USG.
His ability to quickly assert discipline, even from India, is
a good sign that he will be able to keep the corrupt elements
of his Cabinet and government at bay, at least until the
expulsions have taken place.

9. (S/NF) Post has and continues to believe that the AG will
stop at nothing to end the career of the President, his
long-time rival, and will gladly take whatever money the
defendants are offering for his assistance. However,
recognizing the President's need to save face in this
situation, the best course of action is to discuss the deal
as a legal plea bargain with all government interlocutors,
allow the President to reassert his authority upon his return
from India, and prepare for expulsions to take place earlier
than initially targeted. End Comment.
PERRY