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Drug Smugglers Found Guilty in Sierra Leone

Sierra Leone has convicted 15 men of trying to smuggle nearly 700 kilograms of cocaine through the country's airport.

Justice Nicolas Browne Marke found all 15 men guilty of conspiracy to import a prohibited drug without lawful authority.

Two Colombians, a Venezuelan, and a Mexican were fined $1 million and sentenced to five years in prison for importing cocaine. A third Colombian was fined $1.5 million and given five years in prison, and a Colombian-American was fined $2.5 million and given five years in prison on the same charges.

Justice Marke recommended all the foreign nationals in this case be expelled from the country. Only President Ernest Bai Koroma can sign an expulsion order, and Attorney General Abdul Serry Kamal says the government agrees with the judge's recommendation.

Agents from the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation are in Freetown waiting to take custody of several of those convicted.

But defense lawyers object, telling a hastily called news conference following the sentencing that it would be an affront to the dignity of the court for their clients to be removed from Sierra Leone at this time.

Those convicted include a resident of Guinea Bissau, a man with joint Cuban-Togolese nationality and several Sierra Leoneans including two police officers, a national security officer, and two air traffic controllers.

The four-month trial heard evidence that smugglers in a small white plane with a fake Red Cross emblem took on their cocaine cargo along the border between Colombia and Venezuela, before making an unauthorized landing at Freetown's Lungi International Airport last July.

The two-man crew taxied the Caracas-registered Cessna Conquest to a remote part of the tarmac and drove off in a waiting jeep, breaking through a locked gate on the airport's northern perimeter. Security personnel surrounded the plane and discovered several automatic weapons and nearly 700 kilograms of cocaine.

The drugs seized in Sierra Leone's largest cocaine bust have an estimated value of $100 million. Justice Marke ordered the cocaine be destroyed.