A judge at Palau Supreme Court sentenced a Bengali national, Zakir Khair, to a jail term of 25 years over human trafficking charges at a hearing marred by arguments over whether the verdict should be set aside in favour of a new trial. The case is believed to be the first of its kind in Palau and may have far-reaching ramifications.

Khair was convicted by a jury earlier this year of multiple criminal charges relating to human trafficking, labour trafficking and exploiting a trafficked person. Khair had faced a potential sentence of up to 95 years behind bars, if the sentencing judge had applied the maximum sentence for each of the multiple counts Khair had been convicted of consecutively. The most severe count Khair has been found guilty of is human trafficking in the first degree, which, as a charge in itself, carries a potential maximum sentence of 25 years of imprisonment.

During the sentencing hearing, legal counsel for the Republic highlighted that human trafficking is a serious problem, both in Palau and internationally. While four victims of Zakir Khair have been identified by authorities, public prosecutors alleged that `further victims` may potentially be in existence. The victims, who also came from the defendant’s native Bangladesh, had paid money for putative jobs in Palau that ‘frankly did not exist’, public prosecutors alleged.

At sentencing, the judge imposed the maximum sentence of 25 years incarceration for the most serious offence of human trafficking in the first degree, as well as high sentences for the other counts. However, the judge allowed the sentences for all other counts to run concurrently, meaning that Khair`s total term of imprisonment will not exceed the time period of 25 years. In her sentencing remarks, the judge suggested that she did not see any point in imposing consecutive sentence of 95 years in total; This would not serve as a significant additional deterrent. 25 years, she suggested would be enough as a deterrent and for the protection of the republic. Subject to good conduct in prison, Khair could be released and deported after serving only roughly a third of his sentence.

In light of the fact that Khair will spend the next few years of his life in jail, the judge did not impose a fine on him in addition to the prison sentence, as it is considered unlikely that he would be able to pay it.  However, Khair was ordered to cover the costs of his eventual deportation from Palau, which will be mandatory at the completion of his sentence.

Defence counsel had asked the court to impose a sentence of probation rather than imprisonment or to grant the defendant a work release.

The sentencing hearing was overshadowed by requests for a new trial made by legal counsel for Khair.  The defence`s demands for the guilty verdict to be set aside came in light of new written statements from some individuals who had previously provided testimony against the defendant at trial. In their written statements these individuals, believed to be people who are among the alleged victims of trafficking, suggest that they have no claim against the defendant, essentially recanting their previous allegations against the defendant.

However, legal counsel for the Republic argued that the typed statements were without validation, were extremely similar to each other to the point of being almost identical, and displayed a high level of English proficiency beyond the language skills of those who had supposedly written them.

A probation officer testified that he had spoked to the persons who had signed the statements, and had received no indication that these persons were forced to write them. However, the probation officer was not able to provide clarity about how these statements had been written, and agreed that the statements displayed a level of English beyond the capabilities of the persons who signed them.

The judge denied the motion for a new trial, noting that Khair had already been convicted by a jury composed of the people of Palau and that the new statements were not compelling evidence. She also stated that the Supreme Court is weary of statements not made under oath.

A renowned Palauan scuba diver, Francis Toribiong, also appeared before the court at the sentencing hearing. He did not set out to question the court’s verdict, but rather pled with the court to be merciful to Khair on a human level, given his poor economic background in Bangladesh, and the suffering Khair`s family would face if Khair would be deported back to Bangladesh.

It is understood the defendant will seek to appeal his conviction and may seek release on bail pending his appeal being heard.

The Island Times will continue to cover this case. (Colin C. Cortbus)