M.J.P. is suspected of people-smuggling and possession of child pornography. (File photo)
PHILIPSBURG--Two men and a woman from the Dominican Republic are standing trial for alleged involvement in a number of people-smuggling operations between St. Maarten and other islands in the Caribbean, including the British Virgin Islands (BVI) and the United States Virgin Islands (USVI), in 2021. They are facing prison sentences ranging from six to nine years.
The lawyers for two of the suspects pleaded with the Court of First Instance on Friday to acquit their clients. All three suspects will be learning their fates on December 16.
Suspects in the “Albatross” investigation N.R.P.H. (35) and the married couple J.M.C. (43) and his partner in life M.J.P. (55), were all born in the Dominican Republic. The Prosecutor’s Office is holding them for people-smugglers, but the couple claim they were involved in the fishing trade. H. said he was a “gypsy” taxi driver and had only driven people, some of them Brazilians, Venezuelans and Haitians, “to the beach.”
During the October 5 hearing in this case, the Prosecutor’s Office called for six years against H., seven years against P., who is also suspected of child pornography possession, and nine years for C., for involvement in people-smuggling and money-laundering. All three will also be facing dispossession claims on their illegal proceeds in a separate court procedure, it was announced.
The suspects are charged with involvement in people-smuggling operations on September 18 and September 19, 2021, and November 19, 2021, and of laundering the proceeds of these criminal activities. However, they all proclaimed their innocence.
The three suspects were also held responsible for a failed illegal attempt to transport a group of persons from the beach at La Belle Creole in French St. Martin to the BVI or USVI on November 12-13, 2021. This attempt fell through due to problems with the boat and with the captain, who was drunk.
The evidence in this case is mainly built on telephone and WhatsApp conversations, which were found on a mobile phone.
Boats, which were purchased for amounts of US $20,000 and $40,000, and repairs carried out on these boats, were not intended for people-smuggling but for fishing trips, the three suspects claimed.
Attorney Safira Ibrahim pleaded for C.’s full acquittal last month. The lawyer said her client denied the charges, as he claimed not to be involved in people-smuggling.
The attorney also said that the death of a sailor in the operation of September 19, 2021, could not be ascertained as there is no death certificate. Ibrahim further pleaded that the money-laundering charges be dropped, as the money involved in this case had no criminal source and was earned by the sale of fish.
Attorneys Marlon Hart and Sjamira Roseburg pleaded on behalf of their clients during Friday’s hearing. Hart said that taxi driver H. was not involved in people-smuggling. “My client only picked up and dropped off passengers. He was not involved in the planning of transports. He did all kinds of odd jobs, such as the delivery of goods and documents and making money transfers, hence the 3,000 contacts in his mobile phone,” the lawyer explained.
Hart denied that his client had transferred “big sums of money” to Colombia. According to the Prosecutor’s Office, these sums amounted to some $25,000 in one year.
“My client does not have any money. No money was found when he was arrested, and why would he send money to Colombia, as his family resides in the Dominican Republic?” the lawyer said.
Roseburg said that the extensive casefile could not lead to the conclusion that P. had committed the crimes of which she is being accused. She said that P. is a women with dreams. “She is trying to keep her head above the water by selling conch, chicken and fish. However, she is not a human-smuggler,” the lawyer said. “The fact that she is married to Mr. C. and has had conversations with him is insufficient for a conviction of human-smuggling.”
Roseburg denied that her client would be the alleged “mastermind” of the operations and the other suspects the actual smugglers.
The wiretapped conversations were so “vague and general” that they were open to many interpretations, the lawyer said. “It could also be about expanding the fishery business or about making several fishing trips.”
The lawyer also pleaded for her client’s acquittal of money-laundering, as she had nothing to do with the purchase of boats.
Roseburg said that possession of child pornography is a serious crime, but called the court’s attention to the context within which her client had obtained a video, which was sent to her by a neighbour.
“It was been nothing more or less than a mistake to view the video and not delete it,” Roseburg said on behalf of her client, who is a first offender. “It was never her intention to come into contact with child pornography, or to possess child pornography. … In the future, she will not view such videos, but will immediately remove them.”