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Malawi Court Sentences Wildlife Criminals to 56 Years in Jail

FILE - Seized ivory, transported from Malawi to Thailand, is displayed during a press conference at Customs Suvarnabhumi airport in Bangkok, March 7, 2017.

Malawi wildlife officials have declared victory after a court sentenced nine members of a Chinese wildlife trafficking gang to a total of 56 years in prison. Members of the Lin-Zhang group were found guilty of trafficking protected animal species and parts, including pangolins, rhino horn, and ivory. The alleged kingpin of the syndicate is due to appear in court Wednesday.

The nine are part of a 14-member wildlife trafficking gang, who Malawian police arrested in May of last year.

It includes two Malawians and 12 Chinese nationals.

Some of the Chinese are already serving six-year prison terms in the capital, Lilongwe.

Passing more sentences Monday, magistrate Florence Msekandiana also ordered the Chinese traffickers to be deported immediately after serving their sentences.

Defense lawyer Gilbert Khanyogwa told VOA Tuesday he could not say anything because he has yet to see the printed copy of the sentence.

“With my clients we need to go through it and appreciate the basis why the court has given such sentences before we make a decision as whether we live it like that or appeal,” said Khanyogwa.

Brighton Kumchedwa is director of Malawi’s National Parks & Wildlife agency.

He told VOA via messaging app that the sentencing is a victory towards the country’s efforts in combating wildlife crimes.

“We are looking at a foreign syndicate terrorizing southern Africa and Malawi included,” said Khanyogwa. "And now those culprits that have been given 11 years, they are already serving another six years which means they will be behind bars for 17 years. I am sure the cartel now is being dismantled of these criminals.”

Kumchedwa says the foreign syndicate has been recruiting locals to take part in wildlife trafficking for the past 10 years.

The Britain-based Environmental Investigation Agency, which campaigns against environmental crimes and abuse, welcomed the sentencing.

Its executive director, Mary Rice, told VOA via a messaging app that the ruling shows Malawi has demonstrated that it’s possible to get rid of such syndicates within one’s own borders.

“In this particular case, it has been a very hard road,” said Rice. The syndicate was very well connected and did try every which way to get away from the rule of law, but there was tenacity and clear leadership which demonstrate that you can actually identify and prosecute these individuals.”

The alleged kingpin of the syndicate, Yunhua Lin, was arrested in August of last year following a three-month manhunt.

He is expected to appear in court Wednesday to answer charges of possession of rhino horn, conspiracy and money laundering.

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