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Freedom of Information

In SDNY Gambia Passport Scheme Comes To Trial A Month After Humanitarian Trip Denied

By Matthew Russell Lee, Periscope video, II III

FEDERAL COURTHOUSE, April 1 – Back on February 28 before his now begun trial for US passport fraud, Malamin Jagana asked U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York Judge Jed Rakoff to modify his bail to allow a trip to Gambia. His reason was humanitarian: to attend a ceremony with his wife who lives there for their baby who died in a miscarriage a year ago. As reported that day by Inner City Press, the only media present for the proceeding, his lawyer called the ceremony and the father's attendance a cultural requirement. The government opposed Jagana's trip, referring not to Gambia but to Africa as if it were a county: "He has connection to Africa... His wife lives in Africa." SDNY Judge Rakoff did not go "Africa Is A Country" but on risk of flight agreed, saying while "sympathetic to this tragic event... I don't think the risk of him not returning is anything other than huge. So the application is denied." On April 1, again with Inner City Press the only media in the courtroom as the trial in fact begun, Agent Nieves was questioned in several rounds about Jagana's passport moves through his and his brother's apartment at 31 Mount Hope Place in The Bronx, the claim of passport loss on a train in Europe as well as after soccer practice or "training" by Yankee Stadium, and a bag full of Gambian passports and certificates of good behavior. We'll have more on this. Earlier in February in the SDNY a Ugandan man who flown to the US with hands bound accused of renting his Entebbe property for a meth lab was sentenced in the SDNY to six years in prison. Before Judge Kevin Castel passed sentence, he heard the lawyer for Ismael Balinda argue that the chicken coop on the Entebbe property was not an "enclosure" for purposes of the statute, and emphasize that Balinda was in Nairobi with his wife, in the SDNY courthouse on February 12 along with Inner City Press and no other media, and only ran into his co-conspirators by chance. If so it was bad luck indeed. In a Declaration sworn to on 29 January 2018 Balinda stated that in Nairobi the car he was in was stopped and he was put in another car, then "I asked who they were, and one of the men told the other in Swahili that I was  asking who they are, at which point, the man talking to the cab driver walked over to us, put a gun to my head and said he would “blow my head” if I asked again...I was driven to the Special Branch in the center of Nairobi and told that I was  under arrest because I was with the “wrong people'... We were then told that we were under arrest by the US government and that we  had to do whatever was asked of us or we would be in trouble. 32. We were processed one at a time, put on the plane and our hands were zip-tied. 33. We were told not to speak to each other and after about eleven hours (during  which I slept briefly), they started questioning us, starting with me." And now, a six year jail term... Earlier in the week a Bronx mother of two was sentenced to 90 months in Federal prison on February 11 in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District after arguing that the cold and lack of visitors in lock-up pending sentencing militated for a lesser sentence. SDNY Judge Valerie Caproni said that conditions in the MCC where the defendant Marilyn Vargas had been were better than in the MDC in Brooklyn which had been left without heat, see below. Marilyn Vargas said guards told her she was "the property of the BOP," the Bureau of Prisons, and that no visits were allowed during the government shutdown. Judge Caproni said that the shutdown was not that long, a month or six weeks. She questioned where Vargas had been working between 2000 and 2014, and why she had been driving a Lexus when caught "red handed" with twenty kilograms of cocaine. Vargas' lawyer replied that it was a used Lexus, in someone else's name. It was to no avail. Judge Caproni said Vargas seemed most sorry that she was caught, inferring from letters of support saying that Vargas has made a one-time mistake that Vargas had no come clean to her friends about the extend of her involvement in the drug trade. Vargas' two daughters, 30 and 19, were in the Thurgood Marshall courthouse proceeding. Vargas spoke before sentencing, near tears, citing her mother in Puerto Rico and desire to scare straight other single mothers in her Christian communities in The Bronx. While agreeing to recommend FCI Danbury, Judge Caproni went to the higher end of the sentencing guidelines, choosing 90 months from the range of 78 to 97 months. Marilyn Vargas was led out of the courtroom, her feet shackled. Inner City Press and the other attendees - no other journalists - were told to wait until Vargas was taken away on the elevator, seemingly with shackles re-applied to her wrists.  It stood in contrast to lighter sentences on corporate defendants, and impunity for diplomats and the UN as a whole. We'll have more on this. Back on February 5 when Judge Analisa Torres returned at 7:30 pm from the Brooklyn MDC to her courtroom in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York, those assembled - six journalists, Federal Defenders, two named plaintiffs in tan prison guards - seemed to agree that something would happen, perhaps a ruling for a special master to oversee the MDC.

  Judge Torres asked both Federal Defenders' Dierdre Dionysia von Dornum and the FBI's John Ross to describe that they'd seen on the visit to the MDC with her, which Latitia James also accompanied (though no journalists, despite requests in written and orally in the court). Ms von Dornum said the lights were on and it was warmer, but still no medical treatment and few lawyers' visits. The expectation of a ruling for a special master grew.

  But when Judge Torres issued her ruling, it concerned the failure of the two inmates to take the standard and provide even "a shred of evidence" of their claims, that one would face retaliation and the other needed a transfer on medical groups. When it was offered that the testify now, past 8 pm, Judge Torres denied it, saying it was too late. An affidavit will be provided later but the moment was lost. The request for a special master, Judge Torres said, had been raised, and more appropriately, in the civil litigation in the Eastern District of New York - where, Inner City Press learned from a case participant who said "off the record" a meeting of all judges and the US Attorney took place, trying to solve "the whole situation." There was criticism of Nicole McFarland, of the continuing denial of medical treatment and timely lawyers' visits. But none of these were addressed much less solved on Tuesday night. Inner City Press retrieved its electronics, did a Periscope broadcast (here) and this story, from the stone chess (actually backgammon) table across Worth Street from the SDNY courthouse. We'll be here more.

Upcoming in the SDNY is a just-filed complaint by the Bangladesh Central Bank for the $81 million hacking of its funds, which were then wired through the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, a case that Inner City Press will cover. Times change. Watch this site.


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