Drug dealing penalties can’t get stiffer

Published on 04/06/2009

Harsher penalties to hit drug trafficking seems a sensible thing to demand. But death sentences in the same vein as in China — where they are applied retributively for relatively small drug offences — would be a step too far.

This paper opposes the death sentence — and particularly China’s preferred method of execution, a hollow-point rifle-shot to the head. But we recognise that drugs present a major international problem requiring tough solutions. To find them, we need to look at improving law enforcement, not at enhancing the penalties. This is particularly obvious when we consider that penalties for drug trafficking have been life imprisonment, as well as fines of Sh1 million, since in 1993. Death sentences, in addition, have essentially been life imprisonment without the possibility of release since Kenya stopped hangings.

A change in law would, thus, have little practical effect.

China has a unique sentence called “death with two years’ probation” that is generally reduced to life imprisonment at the end of the 24 months. There is a likelihood it is this discretionary sentence that is applied to drug couriers. If so, this would make their laws, for all intents and purposes, no different from ours.

Following exclusive reports in The Standard that five Kenyans face the death sentence in China, and 26 others are imprisoned for between ten to ‘life’, Muslim leaders and anti-abuse groups have called for stiffer sentences.

Vigilante Raids

One official of the Council of Imams and Preachers of Kenya in Mombasa, where heroin abuse is a major social and security problem, says the drug problem is “a national disaster” and the State should impose harsher penalties on traffickers. The problem has reached such proportions, that vigilante groups now conduct violent raids on hideouts used by heroin addicts or the homes of suspected drug dealers.

There have also been protest marches against the police as well as accusations that they are in cahoots with dealers or that they resell drugs confiscated during vigilante raids.

National Agency for the Campaign Against Drug Abuse (Nacada) officials have supported calls for stiffer penalties against drug traffickers locally and abroad. The parastatal’s national co-ordinator yesterday supported measures taken against Kenyan drug couriers in China, while urging the Government “to find out why they are being used”.

There are reasons to support such calls, as long as they are not calls for a death penalty. Kenya’s problem, as we see it, is that too many individuals arrested trafficking drugs are tried for possession, not trafficking. This means they get off with a fine of thrice the value of the drugs and shorter sentences of ten to 20 years.

A look at the drug quantities involved in many cases shows no sober judge will believe the narcotic substance was intended solely for the couriers’ own consumption. Yet time and again lenient jail sentences for possession are handed down on persons who are clearly trafficking for profit. In one recent case, police had the temerity to ‘lose’ the evidence, resulting in a high-profile suspect walking free before the conclusion of a case.

If Kenya is to satisfy the public demand for a robust response to the drug problem, we must see the police investigate drug smuggling and related crime better. In court, prosecutors must present evidence to support charges on trafficking, not mere posession.

It would also serve the cause of justice better if the stiffest penalties were reserved for big drug traffickers, not for the small-time couriers who usually get caught.

Weak Law Enforcement

A sad corollary to the arrests and convictions in China is that a major player in the syndicate to which many of the couriers belonged — a Mr Ken Amadu Obina Okuoma — has never faced trial in this country. The man was deported as were a number of other reputed drug-lords of West-African origin. Until prosecutions of highly-placed traffickers begin to be a common occurrence, it will always appear that our laws are weak. In truth, it is the political will to tackle this crime and law enforcement that are.

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