[This court report was a graded assignment for a Masters programme Media Law class: PHOTOS David Morgan].
A Venezuelan drug mule who pleaded guilty to trafficking HK$2 million worth of cocaine into Hong Kong has had her sentencing adjourned and could receive a reduced prison term.
Mrs. Justice Audrey Campbell-Moffatt said, “I want us to do our best as a jurisdiction to be fair even though she is a criminal.”
The judge’s decision to adjourn proceedings came after the court heard that Liliana Arvelaez had provided information to an anti-drug trafficking programme about the smugglers who recruited her.
But prosecutor Gary Leung told the High Court, “On file, there shows no attempt to provide information” to Hong Kong authorities.
Arvelaez, 40, was detained at Hong Kong’s Chek Lap Kok airport on 7 November 2017 after immigration officials found 1.86kg of cocaine, wrapped in plastic and adhesive tape, concealed within a compartment inside her suitcase. She arrived from Sao Paulo, Brazil via Amsterdam.
Sentences for trafficking in dangerous drugs are based on tariffs related to the quantity of drug smuggled, with one year added for an international element and one-third deducted for a guilty plea. The maximum term is life.
But assisting authorities with information can bring an extra sentence reduction. The Court of Appeal in November 2018 further ruled that participation in prison chaplain Father John Wotherspoon’s anti-trafficking programme amounted to “acts of reparation” and could afford a sentence discount of six months to one year.
Defence counsel Paul Stephenson, in delivering mitigation, said Arvelaez had become deeply religious in prison and worked enthusiastically with Father Wotherspoon’s programme, which raises awareness in Africa and South America.
Stephenson said Arvelaez was raised in poverty and left school unqualified at age 13. A beautician, she departed Venezuela in 2011 and moved to Peru where she worked illegally. There she had a baby to a Peruvian partner but left her child – now three years old – with its paternal grandmother and moved to Sao Paulo where she fell into hardship and engaged in prostitution.
Arvelaez met a man in Sao Paulo known only as Frank, who agreed to pay her US$7,500 to carry illegal drugs to Hong Kong. Once in Hong Kong, she was to go to a hotel and use a mobile phone to connect with an unknown contact.
The court heard that the phone contained Whatsapp messages including images and a final notification that she had arrived in Hong Kong. The judge was concerned to know if that information had been used to try to trace any other parties.
Prosecutor Leung said Customs officials engaged a translator to read the Whatsapp content. But the messages had not been translated subsequently from Spanish and recorded, due to public costs deemed unnecessary given the defendant’s guilty plea.
Judge Campbell-Moffatt noted that Arvelaez lied to Police and had continued to provide false information, including that she was a medical intern.
“That is not to her credit now,” she said, adding, “If I can’t quite weigh up what I’ve got here, what weight do I put on any remorse?”
The judge called upon Father Wotherspoon who related that Arvelaez had eventually volunteered the truth. He said that she had written “oodles of letters” urging people in Peru and Venezuela to avoid her mistake and that she had told her family to give to authorities in South America information about those behind the trafficking.
Father Wotherspoon also offered his opinion that Arvelaez “seems to suffer a degree of emotional instability” and that a psychological test might “explain a lot of this,” a view the judge accepted.
Judge Campbell-Moffatt told the defence to give “anything and everything” to the prosecution so that the information regarding those who recruited Arvelaez in Brazil could be passed to the authorities there via official channels.
The judge noted that “even with the credit, she is going to be with us for a very long time.”
Sentencing was adjourned until 3 April when the court will receive an update on the results of any assistance Arvelaez has given the authorities.