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Drug Smugglers Expelled from Sierra Leone to Face US Charges

Three drug smugglers convicted in Sierra Leone will face charges in the United States, after the government in Freetown expelled them.

Officers from the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency have taken custody of Harvey Steven Perez, Geraldo Qintana-Perez, and Armando Alonso-Romero after they were convicted in Sierra Leone of trying to smuggle nearly 700 kilograms of cocaine through the airport.

The three men are facing indictments on drug related charges in the Southern District of New York.

Perez is a Colombian-American who is the only U.S. passport holder of the 15 men found guilty in Sierra Leone. Qintana-Perez is a Mexican and Alonso-Romero is a Cuban who holds a Togolese passport.

The men were expelled from Sierra Leone under provisions of the country's Non-Citizen Registration, Immigration, and Expulsion Act of 1965 which allows the president to expel any non-citizen on the recommendation of a trial judge if the president determines that is conducive to the public good.

Counsel for the convicted men object to the expulsion. Defense lawyer and Bar Association President Crispin Fio Edwards says it is an insult to the dignity of the high court.

"It is their human right that is being abused," said Crispin Fio Edwards. "Because if you are convicted in Sierra Leone, it is your option to serve your sentence in Sierra Leone or [be] taken away."

Edwards says his clients have always made clear they did not want to be expelled.

"Even at the time when we were making visits to them in the prisons, they have always said to us that they do not want anything to do with the Americans," he said.

Sierra Leone security officials say the men barricaded themselves in their cells before being turned over to the U.S. agents. They were taken to the airport in shackles, where witnesses say Alonso-Romero shouted, "I am a Cuban. I am not American." He and his co-conspirators were loaded onto a white DEA plane for their trip to the United States.

In written statement, U.S. Ambassador to Sierra Leone June Carter Perry congratulated the government on the conclusion of the case. She said the United States works closely with countries in West Africa on the threat of illegal drugs which could hinder progress in security sector reform and the rule of law.

In addition to the three men expelled, those convicted in Sierra Leone include Colombians, a Venezuelan, a resident of Guinea Bissau, 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 used a Caracas-registered Cessna Conquest to take on their cocaine cargo near 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 plane with a fake Red Cross emblem 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. Judge Nicolas Browne-Marke has ordered the cocaine destroyed and the smugglers' aircraft sold off to the highest bidder.