Tuesday, March 07, 2023
LONDON: The United States is battling to extradite Pakistani businessman Asif Hafeez from Britain’s highest security Belmarsh Prison to a jail in New York after snatching a couple of Akasha drug-lord brothers and two others from Kenyan soil defying local court orders, court papers show.
Those held by the US include real brothers Baktash Akasha Abdalla, and Ibrahim Akasha Abdalla, Bollywood star Mamta Kulkarni’s husband Vicky Goswami, and Ghulam Hussein, while one of them was turned into a witness against the Pakistani national.
The case of Hafeez is not an ordinary one, and makes for a Hollywood thriller: full of drama, action, intrigue, criminal syndicates, drug trade, entrapments, Bollywood, American secret agents, forced confessions, a mysterious death, Greek tragedy, betrayals of the highest level.
The case has become very interesting because at least four key characters linked with the Greece drugs conspiracy of 2004 — involving smuggling of 650 tonnes of hashish from Pakistan — and the 2014 Kenya drugs operation, also linked to India, Bollywood and Pakistan, have come out to say Hafeez had a hand in sending drug shipment to Greece and the US.
Moreover, the US agents had set out to target him for several years through every fair and unfair method including inducing him to get involved in drug production and importation to the US territory.
The case is also out of a movie script because Asif Hafeez, in real life, at one stage supplied information to spy agencies of the USA, UAE, UK, and Pakistan. Britain’s secret service even wrote a letter of praise to him for providing credible information that helped stopped a shipment of tonnes of drugs into the UK.
The United States Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) alleges that between 2014 and 2017 it conducted an investigation into the proposed importation of drugs into the United States from Kenya.
The US sources posing as Colombian drug traffickers contacted Akasha Organisation leaders Baktash, Ibrahim, Vijaygiri Anandgiri Goswami (known as Vicky Goswami) and Ghulam Hussein wishing to obtain heroin for importation and supply into the US.
Baktash, according to the US indictment, agreed that he could obtain heroin for supply to the US and told the sources that his supplier was from Pakistan and went by various pseudonyms, one of which was the Sultan, who later turned out to be Asif Hafeez. In October 2014, 98 kilos of heroin were delivered to the US sources, the delivery was said to have been organised by those four men in conjunction with the Sultan (Hafeez).
The US Government’s case is that the “Sultan” thereafter was identified as Hafeez in the course of investigations, especially when devices of the Akasha brothers, Goswami and several other confidential sources were searched, allegedly linking messages to numbers used by Hafeez.
Kenya’s once-powerful Akasha brothers, Vijay Goswami and Ghulam Hussein were first arrested by the Kenya Anti-Narcotics Unit on 9 November 2014 in Mombasa on a request from the US government alleging conspiracy to import drugs into the US but they were soon released on bail.
For over three years, the four men put up a strong defence against the US extradition bid and it didn’t look like the local courts would extradite them to the US anytime soon.
Around 23rd January 2017, all four were arrested by the Kenyan authorities in a sudden operation and within a week — without authorisation of extradition from any local court and without due process being followed — the four accused were flown out of Kenya and produced before New York’s Southern District Court where charges were read out against them and a new superseding charge was added that alleged that the four bribed the local officials in Kenya to prevent their extradition.
Their lawyers and families have alleged that the US kidnapped and extraordinarily rendered them with help from the Kenyan government.
According to court papers and witnesses, the operation of extraordinary rendition on Kenya soil was conducted by the US DEA agents and the Central Information Agency (CIA) – abducting the Akasha brothers, Goswami and Hussein on charges of drugs importation while the local court was hearing their case.
The US government denies acting illegally in court papers and has said it was the government of Kenya that “elected” to remove the four men from Kenya and that a court ruling ordering to produce the four men before the Kenyan court was a matter for the Kenyan authorities.
Once the four Kenyan citizens had been flown away and secured at a US prison, the US agents turned their focus on the entrapment of their main target: Asif Hafeez, the Lahore-born former pilot-turned-businessman, who mingled with Prince Charles and members of the English Royal family at Polo events and donated not only for the Royal charities but also to Shaukat Khanum cancer hospital.
Hafeez was arrested in London from his Regent Park flat on 25th August 2017 by Scotland Yard officers and American agents executing an extradition warrant on behalf of the US government.
Hafeez immediately challenged his extradition case and it’s been now nearly six years that he is imprisoned at the Belmarsh prison in harsh conditions, while the European court hears his case against removal to the US, after all the efforts to halt extradition failed at the UK courts.
This correspondent has visited and met Hafeez at the high-security Belmarsh Prison where WikiLeaks founder and free speech campaigner Julian Assange is also confined, as well as hundreds of inmates serving time for the most serious of crimes including terrorism and multiple murders.
So, what is the case against Hafeez and why is the US government so interested in taking him to US soil for a trial on charges carrying life imprisonment with no right to parole and almost a certain death in prison?
The US wants to put Hafeez on trial over three charges. The first charge alleges that Hafeez conspired to import heroin, methamphetamine, and hashish into the US; aided and abetted the manufacture or distribution of heroin, knowing and intending that it would be imported into the US. In the same charge, the US alleges that Hafeez sent a co-conspirator — British national Afzaal Khan — to meet with the 'Kenyan four' regarding a heroin transaction and eventually, approximately 98 kilograms of heroin were delivered to two unidentified buyers.
Count two alleges that in December 2004, Hafeez and his associates allegedly transported a commercial shipping container containing over six tons of hashish to Greece aimed for delivery in the US; and in the same charge the US further alleges that in or around 2015, Hafeez and a co-conspirator established a methamphetamine factory in Mozambique but methamphetamine was never produced due to the seizure of ingredients by law enforcement authorities.
Count three alleges that from approximately March to November 2014, Hafeez aided and abetted in the manufacturing and distribution of heroin knowing and intending that it would be imported into the US.
The US hoped to use evidence from several witnesses, known and unknown, against Asif Hafeez and it's understood that the enforced extradition of the Akasha brothers from Kenya was exactly for that purpose.
However, there is a big twist to the plot. According to a recent court submission several people - either involved in drug dealing or working as secret agents for the US authorities - have refused to support the US charges against Asif Hafeez and have provided strong witness statements against their own former US handlers and bosses.
Only Vicky Goswami, according to reliable sources, will provide a witness statement against Hafeez after the Indian national was offered a deal by the US govt to become a US informer and a witness in lieu of privileges and exemptions.
Both Akasha brothers, who have been convicted and imprisoned in the US, have refused to indict Asif Hafeez, maintaining that Asif Hafeez didn’t do any drugs dealing with them and that the charges against him are false and fabricated.
A former FBI-DEA agent Kamran Faridi has said in a statement to the lawyers of Hafeez that his handlers at the FBI asked him many times to trap Hafeez while he was working on an entrapment mission targeting Karachi businessman Jabir Motiwala and Ibrahim.
Milesh Tareja, a veteran spy who has worked for both the US and Australian agencies, has said in a written statement that his US handlers spoke to him about Asif Hafeez and Ibrahim.
Court papers show that Hafeez had been under the US scanner since 2004. Ommer Faruke Kolia, a British national of Indian origin from Leicester, revealed full details of his personal involvement in the 2004 Greek hashish importation, his conviction in Greece and who had asked him to go to Greece to count the hashish boxes.
He detailed his story in a written witness statement on 19 February 2018 sent to the lawyers of Hafeez in London. Kolia died in highly mysterious circumstances four months later on 21st June 2018.
He was found dead in a Caribbean hotel. A family source told this reporter he was there meeting spies of a foreign agency in relation to discussions on drug smuggling. He was fit when he was found dead. The family suspects foul play as they have never known how he died.
According to the statement of Kolia, who had served a jail term for offences involving drugs in the UK, he travelled to Lahore in 2004 and met Kamil Bhatt who asked him to undertake a job on his behalf in Greece for £10,000 and full expenses paid.
The assignment was to go to Greece to inspect a shipment of hashish that had been imported from Pakistan and was stored in a warehouse in Athens.
Kolia was asked to count the boxes of hashish, determine their weight, write down serial numbers and report back to Bhatt. On 10 January 2005, Kolia landed in Greece and was taken to the warehouse in the port of Piraeus by a Romanian national called George Baneskou and two other men.
Nearly forty minutes into counting the boxes, George and the other men ran away, closing the shutters of the warehouse and switching off lights.
Within minutes, dozens of armed Greek police officers entered the warehouse, handcuffed Kolia and took him to a police station where he was interviewed by the two American DEA agents over several days while Kolia was allowed to use his four phones so that the agents could see who would call him with queries and updates.
During one of the interrogations, Hafeez called Kolia to ask about his well-being. When asked by the DEA agents who Hafeez was, according to his own statement Kolia told them he was a family friend and both had known each other for several decades.
Kolia wrote in his witness statement: “Mr Hafeez had no connection to the hashish shipment in Greece and had no knowledge that I was even in Greece at the time of his call. His call was entirely coincidental. Hafeez was not mentioned in the entire interrogation and proceedings and had no involvement in the deal.”
Kolia was sentenced to 16 years of imprisonment on the charge of 6.5 tonnes of hashish imported into Greece from Pakistan. He was released after serving 6 years and 5 months in jail in Athens.
Before his mysterious death, Kolia insisted that Hafeez actually asked him many times to stop being involved in the drug trade and had nothing to do with the Greece drug shipment plot.
The DEA confirms it had investigated Mr Hafeez in 2004 when he allegedly conspired to conceal drugs in container shipments so that the drugs could be sent to the United States but the shipment was seized by the Greek authorities.
The DEA directed the source, according to the court papers, to inform Hafeez that the container was at a warehouse in Piraeus and thereafter Kolia arrived at the warehouse to inspect the container. The DEA accepts that Kolia could not be linked conclusively to Hafeez and the shipment.
A former DEA agent Milesh Talreja, from Hong Kong's special administrative region, has provided a witness statement in support of Hafeez, claiming that the US agents wanted to trap both Hafeez and Ibrahim.
Now on the run somewhere in Hong Kong after falling out with the US spy officials for fear of being harmed or caught, Talreja details how he was hired by the US DEA agents in Stockholm, Sweden, in April 2019.
He says that the US Terrorism and International Narcotics Unit, through its agents, instructed him to illegally record evidence in a number of foreign jurisdictions without legal authority, for us in US courtrooms know that the evidence was recorded without legal authority.
Talreja says in his statement that in mid-April 2019 he was requested by a foreign intelligence agency to meet with two special agents from the US DEA in Stockholm Sweden and it was there that he was hired as a confidential source after a series of special meetings with Eric Stouch and Stephen Casey, the US DEA agents.
Talreja asked the US agents to help him in return with his issues in Australia and America to which they agreed. He says he would use a special phone loaded with software that would record audio, video and GPS coordinates and feed that info directly to DEA headquarters in Chantilly and a laptop controlled by Stouch.
Talreja says he ended up being in daily contact with Stouch to work on targets. He says: “Stouch began to tell me about the investigation into Hafeez, who he referred to as MAH. Stouch began to share confidential info with me on a regular basis. Stouch told me his team was working and attempting to ‘beat the FBI to the line’ in securing an indictment against Dawood Ibrahim.
“It was Stouch’s contention that he would be able to trap two individuals into an indictment in the Southern District of New York. He told me that he planned to leverage that indictment against Hafeez in an attempt for him to consent to extradition and to enter into a cooperation agreement where he would be forced to give evidence against Ibrahim’.”
Kamran Faridi, who worked as a spy for the US authorities for over two decades, has also provided a statement to Hafeez’s lawyers.
He says in the statement that his bosses at the FBI and DEA would often ask him to trap Hafeez but their focus was on Dawood Ibrahim and Karachi businessman Jabir Motiwala who was arrested by Scotland Yard in August 2018 and released to return to Pakistan three years later after Faridi turned against his US bosses and revealed that he had lied in his witness statements to trap Motiwala and that Motiwala was not involved in any kind of illegal activity.
Faridi said he fabricated evidence against Motiwala on the instructions of his superiors who wanted to get to Ibrahim at any cost. Faridi is now in jail in the US serving seven years for threatening his FBI boss over a dispute over payments.
Faridi has said in a statement that while working full-time as an FBI/DEA agent he submitted a report in January 2017 that Hafeez had nothing to do with the D-Company or any business with Ibrahim. “I didn’t find any money transaction of Asif Hafeez with the D Company, nor was there any contact with anyone I dealt with.
This report was submitted to the Southern District of New York City and a copy was sent to FBI agents. It was a 7 pages’ report and a copy was sent to the DEA via the FBI but it seems they disregarded the report and continued with the case based on the information they had from the Indian side.
The US wants to charge Hafeez with terrorism (NARCO terrorism) so they can give him life in prison. The US agents want to go after Pakistan through Hafeez,” said Faridi.
Soon after Hafeez’s arrest, the DEA agents with the assistance of the British National Crime Agency (NCA), summoned Afzaal Khan for a meeting - who did jobs for Hafeez in London for his family and assisted him in his business.
Khan has alleged in his witness statement to the court that the DEA and the NCA agents exerted severe pressure on him to cooperate with the DEA and become a witness against Hafeez during their several meetings in London. He claims threats to his life were made including a threat to falsely implicate him in the case against Hafeez.
During interviews, Stouch and other agents asked Khan about Hafeez's possible associations with Ibrahim and members of the Pakistani military.
The DEA and NCA asked Khan which generals in the Pakistan Army did Hafeez know. Although Khan did not know any specific names, he confirmed that some generals had visited Hafeez at home in Pakistan. Eric Stouch asked Khan to review some 30 to 40 photographs of Pakistani military personnel, Khan says in his statement.
According to Khan, the US agents were very interested in knowing more about the sale of a video wall to the Pakistan Army for installation in their headquarters.
Khan told the DEA that he had been involved in the supply of specialist night-vision goggles for military use.
Khan went underground in December 2017 as he feared being arrested too, he has since then not been seen in public in the UK and spoke to this reporter over the phone from an undisclosed location in Pakistan.
Khan said he had left London for fear of being arrested or killed although there are no charges against him.
The US government took out the Akasha brothers from Kenya in the hope that all of them will testify against Hafeez to get concessions for themselves but the Akasha brothers have refused to support the US charges against Hafeez.
In August 2019, the US State Department announced that Ibrahim Akasha has been jailed for 23 years after pleading guilty to trafficking heroin and methamphetamine to the US, amongst other crimes; and Baktash was handed 25 years in jail by the United States District Court of New York for the same offences of narcotics, weapons, and obstruction to justice.
In a recent recorded conversation with Hafeez’s nephew Fawad Hafeez, Ibrahim Akasha from his prison cell has said that the DEA wanted Ibrahim and Baktash to falsely implicate Hafeez in the drug trafficking conspiracy in an effort to force him to give evidence against Ibrahim, the true target of the DEA.
The American government says it has secretly recorded statements of Baktash Akasha, Goswami, and Hussain confirming Hafeez's participation in the heroin deal and Hafeez's 2015 text message to Goswami showing Hafeez was concerned about US law enforcement targeting him based on his participation in the transaction following the arrests in Kenya of Baktash, Ibrahim, Goswami, and Hussain.
Ibrahim denies US claims and says Hafeez was not involved in any kind of drug deals. Ibrahim says the US agents have spoken to him several times offering him and his brother Baktash to become witnesses against Asif Hafeez and in return get released and go home.
Baktash says: “They say we only want Hafeez. We will let you and your brother go home if you talk to us. They want Hafeez to come here.”
Ibrahim says he has told the US investigators that Hafeez is not involved in the drugs importation conspiracy and he wouldn’t lie. “Hafeez is not involved. That’s the truth. Why should I lie? They say you will get a lifetime if you don’t help us. I will not lie,” says Ibrahim.
The only person – and the co-defendant – who has agreed to become a witness against Hafeez at any trial that takes place if extradition is ordered is Goswami. He has pleaded guilty in a cooperating plea agreement with the US authorities and will be called as a witness against Hafeez when and if a trial takes place.
The US didn’t charge him in the superseding indictment – an indication that he turned into an asset.
The US authorities have refused to discuss the current status of Goswami saying that any information on his current status could endanger lives of witnesses. Sources say Goswami is now enjoying a life of luxury and protection from the US government.
Goswami grew up on the streets of Ahmadabad, making his living as a bootlegger. He came to Mumbai and worked in the underworld. He met his Bollywood sweetheart Mamta Kulkarni in Mumbai when she was at the peak of her career.
He then moved to Dubai full-time and organised Bollywood events and started dealing drugs. He was jailed in Dubai in 1997 for 10 years for illegal drug trafficking.
Mamta visited him in jail regularly. They married while Vicky was in jail. After being released, the couple moved to Kenya where Goswami became big again on the drugs scene.
In April 2016, Mamta Kulkarni and Goswami were accused by the Indian police in connection with a Rs2,000-crore narcotics racket unearthed in Thane.
The police seized 18.50 tonnes of ephedrine and 2.50 tonnes of acetic anhydride, both banned party drugs valued at more than Rs2,000 crores in the international market, from a pharmaceutical factory in Solapur and other locations in Thane and Mumbai.
These factories were allegedly owned by Goswami. The US had alleged that Goswami with the co-defendants had agreed to set up a factory in India from where the drugs would be shipped to the US for heavy profits.
At the New York’s Federal Court in October 2020, Goswami took the witness stand and for over two days he told the court that he had been personally involved in criminal activities with the Akasha brothers, and was a witness to some of the crimes they committed.
He linked Akashas to the killing of a South African drug dealer as well as bribes, threats, intimidation, and drug dealing at a vast scale. He also accepted that he had connections with the Yakuza, the Japanese underworld.
Goswami stunned the courtroom when he shared that he had been asked by Indian government intelligence agents to arrange for Yakuza members to travel to Thailand to assassinate a person there described as a terrorist.
Goswami also told the court that the Indian intelligence – believed to be Research & Analysis Wing (RAW) - had asked him to use Yakuza to go to Pakistan to kill “two or three” other persons similarly said to be terrorists.
He didn’t name who those “two or three” persons were. After the convictions of the Akasha brothers and Hussein, Goswami is now a US asset and the US hopes to use his testimony against Hafeez if and when he is extradited to the US.
At South West London’s Belmarsh prison since August 2017, Hafeez has resisted his extradition on the grounds that, among other things, extradition would violate his rights under article 3 of the Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms; that he would be detained in conditions likely to be inhuman; and if convicted, he was likely to be sentenced to life imprisonment without parole and without any sufficient mechanism for review of his continued detention under that sentence.
He has denied all charges and believes he is the victim of a grand conspiracy and the Americans want him at any cost to further their interests.
During a discussion with this reporter at the high-security Belmarsh prison, Hafeez said that during his meetings with the US senior agents in Dubai over many years, the interest of the US agents was focused on the Pakistan Army, the business he once did with the army and about the activities of Ibrahim.
He said the US agents kept asking him to become a source leading them up to the Ibrahim network.
“I told them I had last met Dawood Ibrahim in Dubai when he lived there legally. He was a nice man and I have no idea about any of the allegations made against him by India and others. I cannot lie about someone just to protect myself or to please the US. I did cooperate with the US, UK, and other agencies on many issues but I refused to work against the interests of Pakistan and refused to become a spy against Pakistan,” he said.
Hafeez said Goswami turned against him after he got him arrested in Dubai for drug dealings for which he was sentenced to 26 years but released after 10 years. Hafeez believes the Indian government agencies helped him out.
Before his arrest, Hafeez mingled with the Indian and Pakistani elite in Dubai and London and also attended polo events attended by the Royal family. He owned at least two properties in the UK worth over £7 million – one of which has been repossessed by the mortgage banks since his arrest.
His wife and two sons, who frequently lived in the UK, have since not stepped into the UK for fear that the US may get them arrested too on some kind of charge. Hafeez has changed several lawyers in the UK and has paid a huge amount of fees to fight the US extradition bid. He has lost almost all assets and businesses in Dubai, London and Pakistan since his arrest.
For the last seven years, he has spent 23 hours every day inside his tiny cell and allowed out of his cell only for an hour or less. He told this correspondent that he has managed to survive by reading the Holy Book of the Quran and Hadith on a daily basis.
“This is a very lonely place. It’s very dangerous. I have survived by connecting myself with the Creator and finding a purpose in life. I am not scared of anything anymore. One thing is for sure, I will not accede to the US demands.”
After his arrest in London in August 2017, Hafeez challenged his extradition before a judge at the Westminster Magistrates’ Court. On January 11th, 2019, the Westminster District Judge referred the case to the Secretary of State (then, Home Secretary Priti Patel) to decide whether extradition was appropriate.
On 5th March 2019, the Secretary of State ordered the extradition of Hafeez. In December 2019, Hafeez’s lawyers appealed the decision of the District Judge of Westminster to the British High Court by submitting the testimony of a prison consultant on the conditions of detention.
On 31st January 2020, the British High Court rejected Hafeez’s application against the Home Secretary’s decision on the grounds that Hafeez will be able to apply for compassionate release application or a petition for executive clemency if sentenced to life in the US.
On 12th March 2020, the British High Court refused to certify the case as being in the public interest and the application to refer the case to the UK Supreme Court was refused, exhausting all the applicant's remedies in the UK. On 19th March 2020, under Article 39 of the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR), Hafeez applied to the ECHR for an interim measure. On 24th March 2020, the ECHR ruled in favour of Hafeez regarding the Article 39 interim measure.
The court indicated to the UK that because the applicant had lodged an application with the court under Article 39 of ECHR, he should not be extradited during the proceedings.
Hafeez made a claim under Article 3 of ECHR regarding the imposition of a potential sentence that could result in a life sentence if extradited to the US and under Article 3 of ECHR regarding his conditions of imprisonment as well as Article 6 of ECHR. In June 2020, new evidence was introduced and submitted to the Crown Prosecution Services United Kingdom for withdrawal of extradition.
In a series of applications in 2022, Hafeez submitted evidence of former US spies and detainees who had given evidence in his support, clearing him of involvement in the drugs trade but the courts have said the right forum for this would be in the US and not the UK as the UK courts cannot do a trial of charges.
On May 6th, 2022, Hafeez received a reply for permission to reopen the appeal and to rely on new evidence concerning a violation of article 6 ECHR. This request was refused by the British High Court on May 26th, 2022.
As it stands, Hafeez is today at risk of imminent boarding to New York to face the charges. Inside Belmarsh prison, the former Pakistani gold merchant remains hopeful and defiant.
“One after another witness has come forward to give me a clean chit and the US knows I am not involved but there is a bigger agenda to break me down. The US is hell-bent to take me out to meet its objectives but I have faith in Allah.”
Hafeez is disappointed that the Pakistani governments, under Imran Khan and now the PDM, ignored him and willfully didn’t assist him. “I helped Pakistani institutions counter some of the biggest drug trafficking efforts but in a time of difficulty I have been abandoned and no help has been offered to me as a Pakistani citizen. This is sad.”
The DEA and the NCA didn’t respond to the questions of this scribe.