Man lands four and a half year sentence, €5,000 fine for importing 593g of cannabis

Man jailed for four and half years and fined €5,000 after admitting to having imported less than 600 grams of low-quality cannabis from Sicily

Cannabis flower (File photo)
Cannabis flower (File photo)

A man has been jailed for four and half years and fined €5,000 after he admitted on the first day of his trial, to having imported less than 600 grams of low-quality cannabis from Sicily nine years ago. 

The trial by jury of Eshiemokhai Yakubu Okhiulu, 38, from Nigeria, who resided in Sicily was due to begin this morning. But before the jury was impanelled, the court was informed that Okihulu wished to change his plea and admit to the charges.

He had been arrested upon his arrival on a catamaran from Sicily in December 2014. Police told the court that they had found 593g of cannabis, wrapped in raw meat, inside a yellow plastic bag in his luggage. Lab tests later confirmed the substance to be cannabis with a purity of 7.5%.

According to Okihulu’s bill of indictment, the man had come to Malta to visit his girlfriend who lived here and was expecting his baby. As he did not have enough money to travel, he had asked a friend of his, known as “Toto” for help. Toto had paid for Okhiulu’s ticket and, according to the prosecution, handed him the cannabis “in order to make money out of it” from which Toto would take a percentage.

He stands indicted for conspiracy to sell cannabis, its importation and aggravated possession of the drug. The bill of indictment gives an estimated street value for the illicit substance of €14,825 - an unrealistically high amount for a relatively small amount of low purity drugs.

Okihulu took the witness stand today to testify about the circumstances which had landed him in the dock. 

He told the judge that he had only come to Malta to visit his pregnant girlfriend and had been unaware of the package’s contents.

“I’m here today, not because I’m not guilty or wasn’t in possession of the drugs,” he told the judge in English.

He described the time of his arrest as “the worst time of my life.”

It was his first time in Malta, he said. “I came to Malta from Italy trying to make ends meet. I came to Malta to work as a builder,” he said, explaining that his friend had bought him the ferry ticket.

“My girlfriend came here before me, she was pregnant. Obviously when I arrived here on the catamaran I was stopped and searched… I never opened it [the package] and checked what was inside.”

At the moment of his arrest, he said he had told the arresting officers that the person he was supposed to meet was meant to pick him up from the sea port in 20 minutes’ time. But instead of using this information, the officers had demanded he give them “the names of two black people involved,” Okihulu told the judge. “I said I could not do it, so I was taken to the station.”

The judge asked Okihulu how much he had paid for the drugs. He had not received anything, he replied. “I never knew that I was carrying drugs.”

The drugs had been given to him by his friend “Toto,” who had told him that he owned a construction company in Malta. “Toto” had told him to hand the package over to someone outside the seaport, after which he would be employed as a builder, he said, but the police had intercepted him beforehand.

“I’m saying please I’m a legal immigrant who hasn’t any opportunity. I spent 27 straight months in prison. I asked for bail but was denied,” he said. He owned two companies in Malta, he said, one operating a barber shop and the other selling groceries.

He had no further brushes with the law since his arrival on the islands, he said in reply to a question from the Judge.

“Please, I’m begging you. I was looking for a job opportunity. Today Malta has given me a life. I’m not denying that I had the drugs, but I didn’t come here to sell them… I cannot get married because I need to collect some documents in person [from abroad].”

Defence lawyer Simon Micallef Stafrace asked Okihulu about his tax situation. “I pay tax and VAT in Malta.” he said.

Prosecutor Daniel Tabone confronted Okihulu with the statement he had given to the police. “Toto gave you weed to sell in Malta,” suggested the prosecutor.

“No. I never said [that]. There was no witness. There was no lawyer, I didn’t know it was my right.” he said. He repeated that he had not spoken to a lawyer before releasing that statement.

Tabone suggested that he had told his police interrogators that he was sorry for what he had done, but Okihulu said this was not the case.

“He was just asking me questions. I asked him ‘where is my lawyer?’ He gave me an offer… he took me to Qawra and asked me to name two black people. I refused.” 

Okihulu had insisted with the police that he had been meant to hand the package to a person outside the seaport, he said.

“When I was arrested, I asked the police to wait for 20 minutes so I could meet the person, but they refused, and told me to identify two or three black people, instead.”

Making his submissions on punishment in the afternoon, defence counsel Simon Micallef Stafrace asked the court to factor in the accused’s admission of guilt and the fact that the crime had taken place nine years ago. Okihulu had since reformed and was now a family man, a father to a child and with another child on the way. 

Lawyer Maria Francesca Spiteri, who prosecuted on behalf of the Attorney General’s office together with lawyer Daniel Tabone, emphasised the conspiracy component of the crime, as well as the amount of drugs involved.

Spiteri blamed “delaying tactics on the part of the accused” for the nine-year delay in bringing the case to trial, pointing out that the bill of indictment had been filed just 14 months after Okihulu’s arraignment.

The time factor should not benefit the accused, as he was responsible for it, she said, explaining that the case had taken so long to reach the trial stage because of the many unsuccessful attempts to reach a plea-bargain agreement. 

No agreement had been reached because the punishment Okihulu was requesting was less than the minimum punishment prescribed by law.

When the trial resumed for sentencing at 4:30pm, Madam Justice Scerri Herrera noted that the accused was not a vulnerable person at the time of commission of the offence. Making reference to case law, the judge said that there was no fixed reduction in punishment for admissions of guilt before trial, and may factors had to be taken into account, such as the strength of the case against him. 

The accused had wasted a lot of time for the court, prosecution and lawyers by waiting for years before registering an admission of guilt, said the judge, ruling that Akihulu should not benefit from any reduction in punishment for this.

The delay was attributable mostly to the accused himself, said the judge. Although cannabis had since been legalised, it had remained the same in cases where the drug was not intended for personal use.

The court imposed a sentence of imprisonment for four and a half years together with a €5,000 fine. The 27 months that Okihulu spent in pre-trial custody are to be deducted from his sentence.

He was also ordered to suffer the costs of the case and all of his moveable and immovable property was confiscated.

Lawyers Maria Francesca Spiteri and Daniel Tabone prosecuted on behalf of the Office of the Attorney General.
Lawyer Simon Micallef Stafrace was legal aid defence counsel.