ALEXANDRIA, Virginia – Five men and women convicted of smuggling millions of dollars' worth of the illegal African drug khat into the U.S. all received prison sentences of one year or less Friday, significantly short of what the government sought in a case that cost millions of dollars to pursue.
Three of the five defendants received terms ranging from four to six months. Two received terms of one year. Prosecutors at U.S. District Court in Alexandria, Virginia, had been seeking two years or more for each.
In handing out the lighter sentences, U.S. District Judge T.S. Ellis III said he took into account the fact that use of khat was not as "pernicious" as some other illegal drugs, and that using khat is a common, accepted practice in the home countries of the defendants.
All five defendants are naturalized U.S. citizens from Somalia and Yemen, where khat is commonplace. Users chew the leaf to release stimulants that produce a mild high.
The five sentenced in federal court in Alexandria were among 13 convicted earlier this year in an arduous month-long trial that required simultaneous translation of the proceedings into Somali and Arabic. Most of the attorneys were court-appointed.
Authorities say it was one of the largest khat smuggling rings ever disrupted, importing tens of thousands of pounds of the leaf, worth about $5 million, into the U.S.
The case developed years ago out of a concern that money from the khat trade flowing into Somalia could be funding terrorists. Authorities found no evidence of that in this particular conspiracy, and Ellis took pains during Friday's hearings to make clear that none of the defendants in the case should be associated in any way with terrorism.
The ringleaders of the conspiracy struck plea deals and received sentences of between two and three years, which could yet be shortened to reward them for testifying against the 13 co-conspirators at trial.
On Friday, several of the defense attorneys argued for no or minimal jail sentences, saying their clients were primarily users of the drug and only peripherally involved in its distribution. They also argued that khat's acceptance in the defendants' native cultures should be taken into account. Many of the defendants fled Somalia's civil war 20 years ago, and spent years in Kenyan refugee camps before making their way to the U.S.
Defense lawyer Joseph McCarthy said his client typically used khat while he drank tea and read a book quietly at home. At trial, defense lawyers presented medical studies that khat use was similar to ingesting an energy drink.
Prosecutors, though, said it's dangerous to minimize the danger of khat use. In their sentencing papers, prosecutors quoted from a study noting that in Somalia "most males are stoned on khat," one third of purchases in Yemen are khat, and that, despite the abject poverty in Yemen, "the fields are planted with khat, not corn."
Defense lawyers said the language was offensive, especially when prosecutors made the argument that one defendant was more like to become a recidivist because khat chewing was so ingrained in his ethnic group.
"Never have I had a U.S. Attorney's Office comment on the ethnicity of clients" in arguing for a certain sentence, said defense lawyer Bruce Cooper.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Mary Daly said the comment was not about their ethnicity.
"It was to point out that the defendants were on notice that khat was a problem in their home countries and yet they decided to sell it to Somalis in the United States," Daly said.
Ellis said Cooper was being hypersensitive and that the social acceptance of khat in the Somali community was a point raised by the defense, and one he accepted in handing out lighter sentences.
Despite the light sentences, most of the defendants indicated they plan to appeal their convictions.