Businessman Convicted for Allegedly Covering Illegals Off Prison

The two Sri Lankans will stay in prison until the next court session

Ashref Awel, a manager and minority shareholder of Okapi Impex Plc, who has served three and half years in prison, convicted for allegedly giving cover to non-nationals that have been operating in the country without a legal business license, was released with probation on Friday.

Though the probation period allowed him to be released on the last day of the trial; he stayed for an additional 47 days in prison due to the proceeding between his lawyer and the Federal Prison Administration. Prison Administration stated that his release would not be admissible as his case is pending at the Supreme Court.

He was charged four years ago for allegedly giving cover to 14 non-national defendants by pretending that they were employees of Okapi Impex. He did that knowing full well that they were employees of two locally unlicensed foreign companies, Dubai Auto Gallery LLC and Auto World International Free Zone, claims the charge.

The company, Okapi Impex, a local business that has been in the importing and distribution business in Ethiopia since 2011, was also charged with allegedly giving cover to the Sri Lankans and Indians. Ashref founded the company with Sina Mohammed, an Ethiopian born Djiboutian businesswoman, who has a 90pc share in the company.

His case was under a file which tried 17 defendants comprised of three foreign companies, one Ethiopian company and their employees over a business tax fraud and money laundering worth around one billion Birr. The Federal prosecutors also claimed that Ashref and Okapi are responsible for covering the Sri Lankans who had been conducting market assessments in the regional parts of the country to send it to the two Dubai based companies.

The two Sri Lankans convicts were employees of Okapi. However, they were employees of the two foreign companies that had been engaging in the Bajaj, two-wheeler and three-wheeler motorcycles, retailing business in Ethiopia. The business according to the prosecutors claim is restricted to local companies only.

The Federal High Court that has been trying the case for the past four years convicted seven of the defendants two years ago in absentia. Ashref, Hitijira Yasanta, a.k.a Surendra and Plantawaje Asita, a.k.a Asita were convicted on March 11, 2018. The judges sentenced them to five years of imprisonment on the last session held on March 17, 2018.

One of the judges gave a dissenting opinion stating that the non-national defendants were not illegally operating in the country, not until after fulfilling all the necessary documents. He also stated that Ashref and Okapi did not cover them, instead hired them properly.

During the last proceeding when the High Court closed the case, the two Dubai-registered companies were acquitted by the Court. However, the owners of the companies were convicted and sentenced for illegal trade and money laundering.

On the same date the Court sentenced the convicts, the prosecutors of the Office of the Attorney General appealed to the Supreme Court which accepted it right away. Admitting the 21-page appeal of the prosecutors, justices of the Supreme Court issued an order to eight banks to freeze 100 million Br belonging to the three companies. The justices also ordered for the Main Department of Immigration & Nationality Affairs to prevent the convicts from leaving the country.

When the court convicted the three individuals, they had already served the sentence time, and their lawyers started to process their release. However, they were not released as the Prison Administration resisted, asserting that the prosecutors have already appealed to the Supreme Court and they were summoned for May 8, 2018.

The lawyer of the convicts, Molalign Meles, appealed to both the High and Supreme courts for the release of his clients, granting their probation. The courts stated that they did not order in their ruling to keep the convicts in prison.

Last Wednesday, justices of the Supreme Court ordered the Prison Administration to realise Ashref. The three justices also adjourned the case of the non-nationals to next Wednesday as they do not have a resident permit. And at the same time, they are under injunction by the Immigration Office not to leave the country due to the pending case at the same bench.


Published on Apr 28,2018 [ Vol 18 ,No 939]



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