Police reviewing grounds of dropping case

Rinzin Wangchuk

The office of the Attorney General (OAG) found that the case of khat dry leaves Bhutanese exporters or courier services repacked and exported to foreign countries did not merit prosecution.

The case was returned to the Narcotics Drug Law Enforcement Unit (NDLEU) of Thimphu police station on April 22.

After scrutinising large controlled psychotropic substances in consignments airmailed through different courier services between December 19 last year and February 2020, police forwarded its investigation report to the OAG for prosecution.

Laboratory test at Bhutan Narcotics Control Authority (BNCA) also confirmed that the khat consignments labelled as moringa tea contained chemical, cathinone. During the investigation period, police seized about 1,600kg of khat sent via courier service.

Police had recommended the state prosecutor to charge 11 accused, including six men and five women under a felony of first degree for illicit trafficking of cathinone through a drug smuggling racket operated from Ethiopia using Bhutan as a transit point to ferry drugs to other foreign destinations including the Middle East. The suspects were from seven or eight courier services or shipping agencies, including Bhutan Post and e-commerce ventures, based in Thimphu.


Khat and law in Bhutan

Khat is a flowering evergreen shrub native to East Africa and the Arabian Peninsula. The plant contains two alkaloids, cathinone and cathine. It is not found in Bhutan.

In Bhutan, cathinone is a Schedule II controlled drug and listed as psychotropic substances with no medicinal value under the NDPSSA act.

The offence of illicit trafficking of substances under Schedule I and II of NDPSSA is a felony of the first degree if the quantity is equal to or more than two times the quantity and the defendant can be sentenced to a minimum of 15 years and a maximum of life imprisonment.

The quantity determined for cathinone is five grams irrespective of purity and formulation.


Why did OAG return the case?

OAG officials said that the suspects did not know that the moringa tea consignment, which they were exporting to be khat, as identified and confirmed by the BNCA during the course of investigation.

The OAG stated that the agriculture ministry of Ethiopia had issued phytosanitary certificate to the Bhutanese consignees to make them believe that the consignment was moringa tea, which also led officials to believe that contents to be moringa tea.

OAG also found that exporters misled trade official by declaring that the so-called moringa tea was produced in Bhutan, when both trade officials and the Bhutanese exporters knew they weren’t.

“The failure on the part of the trade officials to examine and comply with the rules of export and import has resulted in exporting the khat under the guise of moringa tea which led to believe that both trade officials and exporters were acting in good faith and had no knowledge of the consignment to be khat.”

It also stated that BAFRA did not carry out any testing measures at the point of entry solely because there was a certificate to authenticate the product’s origin.

OAG officials blamed BAFRA’s oversight in not carrying out examinations of organic plant entering the country. This led Bhutanese exporters to believe that the consignments received was moringa tea and not khat.

BAFRA also did not open every consignment and check the contents of the tea at the point of entry in the country.

“The office is unable to charge the listed individuals under the NDPSS Act because there is no way to prove the knowledge on the part of the Bhutanese exporters regarding the contents of the consignment received by them were khat,” OAG stated.  “They exported it knowingly because they had every reason to believe the consignment sent to them were moringa tea as BAFRA cleared them from the point of entry.”

A police officer with NDLEU said police is reviewing OAG’s grounds for not prosecuting the case. “However, we stand by the findings of our investigation,” he said.


How did the case surface?

A courier service company in Thimphu reported to BNCA on December 19 last year that the company received a suspected consignment of 4kg.

Officials from BNCA and police found that the consignment was labelled as Moringa or herbal tea. BNCA conducted a presumptive test and found cathinone.

On further investigation, police found that the consignments were pouring in continuously at the Bhutan Post office and other logistics companies. It was found that international drug trafficking syndicate used Bhutan as trafficking route for shipping their illicit consignments from Ethiopia to foreign destinations.

Traffickers use websites of courier /shipping service companies and other social media platforms in Bhutan to build network contact and send their consignments. Once the traffickers established contacts with the employers and individuals, they ship khat labelled as moringa tea to different individuals in Bhutan. The consignments are packed in cartons of various sizes between 8kg to 20kg.

The packaging is changed once Bhutanese receive it and re-sent to the designated foreign countries. As instructed, receivers remove the packages, buy new boxes from Bhutan Post, re-pack them and send it by air services.

On February 13, BNCA issued a public notification cautioning the general public, courier services, import and export houses to refrain from engaging in import/export of such products.

Meanwhile, a Nepalese national is being prosecuted at the Thimphu dzongkhag court in connection with illicit trafficking of substances shipping through courier services.

In the first week of December last year, customs officials seized 19.30kg of hashish and 600 grams of crystal meth (methamphetamine), both illicit contraband items worth more than Nu 42.60 million at DHL office, Thimphu. The consignments were bound for Hong Kong.