Priscilla Jemutai, a former Kenya Airways Cabin staff, was recently released after serving 13 of her 18-year jail term. She had been caught carrying heoin worth Sh28m in 2002, but mystery still surrounds who had hired her to fery the narcotics from Mumbai to Nairobi
On the morning of March 25, 2002, former Kenya Airways stewardess, Priscilla Jemutai Kolongei, arrived from Mumbai, India, to an unexpected drug bust that saw her jailed for 18 years.
The former hostess, who was recently released after serving 13 of her 18-year jail term, was travelling as an ordinary passenger on flight KQ201 that touched down at 7.15 am at the Jomo Kenyatta International Airport (JKIA).
She promptly went to the baggage hall where she collected one suitcase and a travelling bag. Exuding confidence as a staffer with the national carrier on familiar territory, Jemutai placed her two pieces of luggage on a trolley and wheeled them to the Customs desk for the necessary mandatory checks.
On being asked what she was carrying in the bags, she responded that they were personal bed sheets. The customs officer on duty insisted on checking the bags since she appeared reluctant to open them for inspection.
Once the search started, some strange smell oozed out and this compelled the officer to conduct a thorough scrutiny despite Jemutai’s protests. At the verification room, it was confirmed that some brownish powder was wrapped in polythene paper and concealed in brand-new jeans trousers.
The baggage tag was tallied with Jemutai’s air ticket and passport. Upon further interrogation, Jemutai confirmed the luggage was hers and that she had personally packed all the items.
The inventory of the items that were found included 33 packages and two sachets of the brownish substance, which she counter-signed. A seizure notice in respect of the drugs was also issued and counter-signed by Jemutai, who was present when they were weighed and samples taken to the Government Chemist.
The suspect substance weighed 27.8 kilograms of Diacetylmorphine, which is commonly known as heroin. It had a street value of Sh27.8 million.
The former air hostess was arrested and subsequenty charged with drug trafficking, which carries a mandatory sentence of life imprisonment upon conviction. The law provides for a further Sh1 million fine or three times the street value of the contraband.
The then Kibera Senior Principal Magistrate (now Court of Appeal Judge), Wanjiru Karanja, found Jemutai guilty of the offence on November 6, 2002, after hearing evidence tendered by 12 prosecution witnesses.
Jemutai was jailed for 18 years and fined Sh10 million or in default serve another one-year imprisonment. She has been serving her sentence at the Langata Women Prison in Nairobi.
In her self-recorded statement to the police upon arrest, which was retracted but admitted in evidence after a trial-within-trial, Jemutai had admitted that the drugs were found with her but said she was carrying them for someone else on a promise of being paid some US$ 2,000 (Sh211,980 at current exchange rates) upon delivery of the drugs.
She had denied in court that she had known that she was carrying heroin. But in an interesting twist, she conceded having been warned by some people in Mumbai that she was to carry “prohibited merchandise” even before it was packed into her baggage.
Admittedly, it was not the first time she had been used as a courier for such assignment as she had previously been paid US$ 900 (Sh95,391) for a similar mission.
The trial court ruled that Jemutai’s conduct at the airport and all surrounding circumstances corroborated her statement that she knew she was carrying the drugs and did not use reasonable care and precautions to ensure she was not importing narcotics.
Before her release, she had unsuccessfully made two attempts to untangle herself. At first, Jemutai was dissatisfied with the conviction and sentence but chose to only challenge the custodial punishment before now retired High Court Judge Benjamin Kubo.
However, in a considered judgment delivered on December 12, 2003, the judge dismissed the appeal against the 18-year jail-term and substituted the Sh10 million fine with Sh83.4 million. Jemutai was still aggrieved by the outcome of the case and petitioned the Court of Appeal to quash it.
Her major complaint was that the High Court had unilaterally enhanced the original fine without notifying her. She had singularly attacked the entire evidence on the value of the heroin as provided by Chief Inspector John Kemboy, who was at the time the officer-in-charge of the Anti-Narcotics Unit at JKIA.
She had branded the valuation as insufficient and worthless because it should have been tendered by an expert. Senior State Counsel Job Kaigai strenuously opposed the numerous grounds of appeal on the basis that Jemutai fully understood the serious charge facing her and the punishment provided for by law.
He dismissed her assertion that there was a fundamental difference between “street value” and “market value” of illicit drugs. Court of Appeal Judges Erastus Githinji, Philip Waki and John Onyango-Otieno agreed with Kaigai there was no open market for illegal drugs and only competent police officers received information from their underworld sources.
“In this case, the source of the opinion given by CIP Kemboi on the value of the drug was intelligence gathered by him from drug addicts he has interacted with in the two-and-a-half years he headed the Anti-Narcotics Squad and from other intelligence networks,” they observed.
“Kemboi was a gazetted officer for valuation of drugs and that was not challenged. Once again, we must appreciate the difficulty in obtaining authenticated values in such circumstances, but in the absence of any other evidence to challenge CIP Kemboi, the trial court was right to believe him,” the appellate Judges explained in their judgment delivered on January 14, 2005.
“The solution, therefore, in our view, where the trial court is faced with scanty material on valuation, is not to throw up one’s hands and dismiss the valuation, but to do their best to find the willing seller-willing buyer price, or simply the market value,” they had reasoned.
“We think in this case, the material on record was sufficient to support the valuation of the drug weighting 27.8 kg at Kshs 27.8 million. It follows, therefore, that the use of that valuation as a basis for determining the sentence was not enhancement of sentence but a legalisation of it,” the three-Judge bench explained.
“On the whole, this appeal, which is wholly on the legality of sentence, is without merit. As Shakespeare would put it, it was full of sound and fury, signifying nothing. We dismiss it,” Justices Githinji, Waki and Onyango-Otieno concluded.
Her release is said to have been the result of her transformation while in jail, which one senior warder was reported as saying earned her admission into a special class of inmates called “Trustees” who have access to utilities such as television sets.
But even with her release, the questions that beg answers are; Who had recruited Jemutai as a courier in the illicit drug trade? Who were the prospective recipients of the intercepted haul of heroin?
¬¬—Any new information on the case