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US Judge Sets February Trial for International Drug Smuggling Case

  • Larry Freund

A U.S. judge has ordered the trial of an international drug smuggling case to begin on February 28.

Judge Jed Rakoff scheduled the trial to begin more than six months from now in what he called a complicated and difficult case. The defendants include a Russian, a Nigerian and two Ghanaians. They are charged with conspiring to import cocaine into the United States. They were arrested in Liberia in late May and were brought to New York to face the drug trafficking charges.

When the charges against the men were announced in June, U.S. officials said the defendants were involved in conspiracies that touched four different continents, that measured its traffic in tons and counted its revenue by the billions of dollars. U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara said drug trafficking organizations based in South America - predominately Colombia and Venezuela - have increasingly exploited countries in West Africa as trans-shipment hubs for drugs destined for Europe.

In this case, the United States charges that the defendants were trying to establish a new base of operations in Liberia. Liberian security officials, said to be the target of bribes by the drug smugglers, have been described as actually working undercover as part of an investigation by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration.

In a pre-trial hearing, the presiding judge questioned the government about delays in the presentation of its evidence to defense lawyers, as required by American law. The government attorney explained that investigators are still examining seized electronic equipment, including laptop computers and cell phones.

Lee Ginsberg, an attorney representing defendant Konstantin Yaroshenko, told the judge he intends to challenge the government's case on three legal issues. They include the legality of secretly recorded conversations, the manner of Yaroshenko's transfer to the United States and, as Ginsberg told reporters, whether the case even belongs in an American court.

"There is a serious question as to whether or not the United States has proper jurisdiction to prosecute this case because there are issues as to whether or not whatever the government claims any of the defendants agreed to was something that would have either occurred in the United States or affected the United States," he said.

The United States charges that Yaroshenko, a Russian airplane pilot, transported 1,000-kilogram quantities of cocaine throughout South America, Africa and Europe. Yarashenko has complained about his mistreatment after his arrest in Liberia. His attorney said he was not treated very well in Liberia but is being treated much better in the United States, where he is being held in a federal detention center in New York.

The defendants'lawyers called for delays in the start of the trial so they could sort through the evidence and Judge Rakoff agreed, saying U.S. requirements for a speedy trial are outweighed because of the complexity of the case.

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