Mombasa (Kenya) (AFP) – A court in Kenya on Wednesday granted bail to the suspected ringleader of an ivory smuggling gang on medical grounds, prompting angry protests from conservationists.
Kenyan national Feisal Mohammed Ali, who figured on an Interpol list of the nine most wanted suspects linked to crimes against the environment, was arrested by international police agents in Tanzania in December after fleeing Kenya and extradited to face charges in the port city of Mombasa.
Releasing Ali on a 10 million shilling (102,000 euro) bond, Magistrate Justus Kituku said he did not believe the suspect would try to flee again.
“The court hopes the accused has learnt his lesson,” said Kituku. “The world is a global village. You can run but you cannot hide.”
Conservationists reacted angrily to the ruling, saying it undermined a case seen as a test of Kenya’s willingness and ability to prosecute wildlife crimes.
Paula Kahumbu, chief executive of conservation organisation Wildlife Direct, said the decision to grant bail was “ridiculous”.
“The 10 million shilling bond is a fraction of the value of the ivory seized,” she said. “This is a very, very bad sign that Kenya’s landmark case is being compromised.”
“It’s very depressing” said Frank Pope of Save the Elephants. “It’s a sad day for Kenya when someone accused of orchestrating the killing of some of the world’s most iconic wildlife is allowed to walk free.”
He said it now “remains to be seen” whether the laws written on paper will be “carried through in the real world”.
A recent five-year study of wildlife cases before Kenyan courts, carried out by Wildlife Direct and published in 2014, found that only seven percent of those convicted of offences against elephants and rhinos actually went to jail, despite the crimes carrying a maximum ten-year sentence.
– Appeal lodged –
The judge’s decision came after defence lawyers successfully argued that their client required medical treatment for diabetes that could not be provided while in custody. Kituku ordered Ali to hand over his passport and report to detectives weekly.
Ali is charged with possession of and dealing in elephant tusks weighing more than two tonnes — equivalent to at least 114 slaughtered elephants and worth an estimated $4.5 million (4.2 million euros).
Prosecutors allege he is a key player in the organised crime network stretching from African parks to Asian markets, where demand for ivory is high.
He has denied all charges.
Kenya’s Office of the Director of Public Prosecutions said it was appealing the bail decision at the High Court.
The haul was discovered by Kenyan police in June when they raided a car dealership in Mombasa, after which Ali fled to Tanzania.
Already the Ali case has been mired in controversy after a fleet of vehicles, due to be presented as evidence, disappeared while under police guard.
Save the Elephants estimates an average of 33,000 elephants have been lost across Africa to poachers each year between 2010 and 2012.
Experts say that international criminal gangs control the trade, pushing Africa’s elephants towards extinction. A joint UN Environment Programme and Interpol study in 2013 said the illegal trade in African ivory is worth up to $188 million.
The next hearing in Ali’s case is due on March 24.