The Federal High Court sitting in Lagos Thursday sentenced four foreigners to six years imprisonment for wildlife trafficking.
The convicts are three Vietnamese – Phan Viet Chi, Phan Hong Quan and Duong Van Thang – and a Cameroonian, Mory Berrette.
Justice Yelim Bogoro convicted the four following their plea of “guilty” to an amended four-count charge, after they entered a plea bargain agreement with the Nigeria Customs Service (NCS).
Specifically, the court sentenced each of the four men to three years imprisonment on the first count or the sum of N500,000 each as fine in lieu of imprisonment.
“Two years imprisonment on the second count, or in lieu of imprisonment pay the sum of N2 million each as a fine.
“That the convicts shall each pay a fine in the sum of N2 million each for the third count, being first-time offenders.
“That the convicts shall each be sentenced to one year’s imprisonment on the fourth count or in lieu of imprisonment pay the sum of N200,000 each as fine.”
According to the terms of the plea bargain deal, the convicts “will assist in providing useful information for the arrest of other persons at large who are involved in the wildlife trafficking trade within and outside Nigeria”.
The convicts also agreed “to stand as witnesses for the prosecution when required to do so, in the event that the absconding suspects involved in the trace of illegal wildlife trafficking within and outside Nigeria are arrested now or at any time in the future.”
The four had been standing trial since last year alongside two Nigerians, Babangida Mahmoud and Olamilekan Adenekan, and a Guinean, Fofou Dadjo Evariste.
The seven defendants were arraigned by the NCS on July 22, 2022, for alleged illegal possession, dealing in, assembling, storing, smuggling and trading in pangolin scale and elephant’s ivory.
These defendants and others were arrested as a result of joint wildlife enforcement operations by the NCS and the Wildlife Justice Commission (WJC), targeting illegal wildlife traders and traffickers from Africa to Asia.
The prosecution informed the court that all the defendants committed the offences between 2018 and 2022, in Lagos.
The defendants pleaded not guilty and the trial commenced.
On June 12, the Vietnamese defendants’ counsel, Mr Anthony Ikariale, told Justice Yelim Bogoro that his clients were in talks with the NCS for a plea bargain agreement but that the process had yet to be concluded.
He prayed the court for a short adjournment.
The NCS’ Director of Prosecution, Mr Smart Akande, who led Mr Michael Osang, confirmed Ikariale’s position.
Justice Bogoro granted the application and adjourned till July 17.
At the resumption of trial on Wednesday, Mr Akande leading Mr Osang, appeared for the prosecution.
Akande informed Justice Bogoro that the “1st, 2nd, 3rd and 4th Defendants have hinted to our office that they’re willing to change their plea.
“Pursuant to that, we have filed an amended charge which we urge the court to adopt and take the plea of the defendants.”
Following the court’s approval, the amended charge was read to the first to fourth defendants.
They pleaded guilty to each of the four counts.
At Justice Bogoro’s prompting, the prosecution called Mr Yisa Umar of the NCS Special Wildlife Unit, Ikeja, who reviewed the facts of the case and tendered 37 exhibits, including sample Pangolin skin, seizure receipt, certificate of text analysis and defendants’ statements.
Justice Bogoro held: “The prosecution had called its first witness which gave evidence and was duly cross-examined. But on the 12th of July, 2023, the 1st to 3rd defendants hinted to the court about their intention to change their plea via a plea bargaining arrangement.
“Today, 19th of July, the prosecution filed the terms of the plea bargain agreement. In view of this, I find the 1st to 4th defendants guilty as charged and adopt the sentence therein.”
But the 5th, 6th and 7th defendants maintained their “not guilty” plea.
The judge granted an application by the prosecution to confiscate the pangolin skins recovered from the defendants and adjourned till November 5, 6 and 7 to 9 for the trial of the 5th, 6th and 7th defendants.