• Drug criminal Hefner Derbai Allowed To Avoid Trial On Trafficking Charge That Carries 25-year Minimum Sentence.
  • Derbai Pled Guilty Monday Morning To Charge Of Criminal Conspiracy
  • Derbai Admitted That He Conspired With Foreign Criminals To Import Nearly Half A Kilo Of Meth Into Palau Via Airfreight package
  • Derbai Had Been Drinking On Night Before Plea Hearing

During a hearing at the Supreme Court in Koror on Monday morning, a defendant in a key drugs case was allowed to avoid facing trial on a Methamphetamine trafficking charge that carries a 25-year mandatory minimum jail sentence. As part of a plea agreement reached between prosecutors and defence counsel, the defendant pled guilty instead to a single count of criminal conspiracy that leaves sentencing fully at the ‘discretion of the court’.

In November 2017, an incoming international package containing over 400 grams of the highly addictive, dangerous illegal drug Methamphetamine was seized at an airmail facility on Babelthuap Island in Palau. Subsequently, public prosecutors charged local man Hefner Derbai, who told a judge that he works a night time job as a bouncer at a local bar, with three drug-related criminal counts: Trafficking a controlled substance (PNC Title 34, Chapter 33, §3301), Possession of a controlled substance (PNC Title 34, Chapter 33, §3302) and Criminal Conspiracy (PNC Title 17, Chapter 10, §1001) to import Methamphetamine into Palau. The case was under seal until recently.

Both the trafficking and the possession charges carry harsh mandatory minimum sentences. This means that a sentencing judge has no option other than imposing, at the very least, a certain jail term, set by law, upon someone convicted. It is understood that in the case of Methamphetamine, Palauan law prescribes that, if found guilty of trafficking the drug, a defendant “shall be sentenced to a term of imprisonment of not less than twenty-five (25) years but not more than fifty (50) years” as well as receiving “a fine of not less than fifty thousand dollars ($50,000) but not more than one million dollars ($1,000,000)”.   If found guilty of the mere possession of more than a gram of Methamphetamine, a defendant must face a minimum sentence of “not less than three (3) years nor more than seven (7) years and may be fined not less than two thousand five hundred dollars ($2,500) nor more than ten thousand dollars ($10,000)“.

As part of a plea agreement between prosecutors and defence counsel, these weighty, mandatory-minimum-sentence-carrying charges against Hefner Derbai were both dismissed. Instead, at a plea hearing held at the Supreme Court in Koror on Monday morning just after 9am, Derbai pled guilty solely to the single count of Criminal Conspiracy to import Methamphetamine into the Republic of Palau.

Prior to Derbai entering his guilty plea to this charge, presiding judge Oldiais Ngiraikelau explained to the defendant that he could face a sentence ranging anywhere from a minimum of probation to a maximum of 50-year imprisonment, as well as a fine that could range anywhere from zero to $1 million.

The presiding judge explained at the hearing that sentencing would be left fully “at the discretion of the court”.

Derbai`s hearing had originally been set for 8.30am on that Monday morning, but was delayed until after 9am, as Derbai had not shown up at the courtroom at the original time.

Before being allowed to make his guilty plea at the hearing, Derbai was asked a series of questions by the presiding judge to ensure that he was entering his plea voluntarily and competently. Derbai testified under oath that he had no previous history of mental illness, and stated that during the hearing, he was not under the influence of alcohol, heavy medication or pills. Derbai did however admit to the presiding judge that on the night prior to the hearing he had been imbibing alcohol, but suggested that his ability to understand and participate in the hearing was not affected by this.

Responding to the judge’s questions, Derbai confirmed that he had had a chance to review the plea agreement with his defence counsel prior to signing it, and that he understands the sentence he could face. He also confirmed that he fully understood that criminal defendants are entitled, if they so wish to enter a plea of not guilty to receive a trail where they are presumed innocent until proven guilty beyond reasonable doubt.

Asked by the judge to confirm whether he was pleading guilty to the charge of criminal conspiracy because he was indeed guilty of it, a Derbai briefly paused to confer with his defence counsel and then answered the judge`s question in the affirmative; Details regarding the seized Methamphetamine airmail package were read out to the defendant.

Derbai then entered a plea of “guilty” to one count of Criminal Conspiracy. Summing up, Presiding Judge Ngiraikelau noted that he was satisfied that the guilty plea was made voluntarily and competently, and had an independent basis in fact. The judge stated that the defendant was guilty of criminal conspiracy to import Methamphetamine into the Republic of Palau.

It is understood that a sentencing hearing in the case of Derbai will take place in mid-September, after a pre-sentence investigation will have been completed. Presiding judge Ngiraikelau reminded the defendant at the conclusion of the plea hearing to cooperate with the Probation Service in carrying out this pre-sentence investigation.

The Island Times has approached the Office of the Vice-President and the Minister of Justice for comment on the case. As the Office did not have available the full facts regarding the case, it referred this newspaper to the Attorney General`s Office.  An Assistant Attorney General at the Attorney General`s Office told the Island Times that their office does not comment on pending cases. (Colin C. Cortbus/Reporting from the Supreme Court in Koror)