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Nightmare in Ghana : Montrose Importer of Exotic Birds Imprisoned Since June

July 21, 1988|ESTHER SCHRADER | Times Staff Writer

When bird importer Darrell Alexander left for Tanzania, Togo, the Ivory Coast and Ghana in February, he told his wife he'd return to his Montrose business with 1,500 parrots in early June.

But neither Alexander nor his newly purchased birds made it on the return flight.

On June 6, Alexander and his assistant, Kirk Stubbs, were arrested by Ghanaian authorities in the west African country's capital city of Accra. Their cargo of African Grey parrots was confiscated, and the two have been detained by Ghanaian officials ever since, State Department officials said. Neither have been charged with a crime, officials said.

Although State Department authorities would not speculate on why the men were arrested, Alexander's wife believes their detention is related to his efforts to export the parrots, a threatened species.

This week Florence Alexander traveled from her home in La Crescenta to Atlanta to plead for her husband's release outside Democratic National Convention headquarters. U.S. officials said there is not much they can do to help, but Alexander said she won't stop trying to call attention to the situation until someone does.

Darrell Alexander, 46, owns Exotic Fauna International, a U.S. Department of Agriculture-sanctioned bird import and quarantine company in Montrose. He sells birds he brings into the country to pet stores, bird breeders and zoos. African Grey parrots generally retail for $500 to $1,000 each.

The parrots--prized for their ability to mimic speech--are listed as a threatened species in the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Flora and Fauna, a treaty signed by the United States. The treaty allows commercial trade in the species with the permission of the countries of import and export.

USDA officials confirmed Alexander was carrying valid permits to import the birds to the United States when arrested at Accra International Airport. It is unclear whether Alexander's shipment had been approved for export by the military-controlled Ghanaian government.

Last month Florence Alexander quit her job to work on her husband's case full time. Waging a publicity campaign from two phone lines in her home, she has called officials in Washington and Accra, relief organizations around the world and newspapers and radio stations around the country. She answers her phone with the words "Committee to Free Darrell Alexander" and she said she wakes up in the middle of the night wondering if she is doing all she can to win his release.

On Sunday, saying she does not believe that U.S. officials cannot help, she left for the Atlanta convention, carrying signs that show her husband with his favorite parrot.

'Scare All the Time'

"I'm scared all the time," Alexander said. "I'm a zombie. I haven't slept in days . . . I have to do something. I don't even want to think about it if I stop. I'll probably do this until the day he gets out."

The State Department estimates that more than 3,000 Americans are imprisoned abroad each year. Under international law, American embassies have no authority in criminal cases brought against U.S. citizens in other countries unless they have reason to suspect the Americans are being mistreated, State Department Office of Consular Affairs spokeswoman Frances Jones said.

A U.S. consular officer has visited Alexander at the detention annex of the Bureau of National Intelligence in Accra four times since his arrest, U.S. officials said. Stubbs, who is ill, is being held in a Ghanaian hospital, they said. Aside from Alexander and Stubbs, one other American is also being detained in Ghana in an unrelated case. And Alton Sawyer, a Louisiana businessman, died in a Ghanaian hospital in June after being detained by government authorities since last November. A State Department traveler's advisory issued June 14 warns that jail conditions in the country are "harsh."

Arranged for Export

Alexander first traveled to Ghana in September, 1987, then again in December to make arrangements for the export of the birds. His last trip, which began in East Africa on Feb. 5, was his first attempt to actually export birds from Ghana, Florence Alexander said. Previously, Alexander had exported birds from South and Central America.

American Embassy officials who have visited Alexander in jail are supplying him with medicine for chronic dysentery, a condition that can be stabilized with regular medication. U.S. officials try to assure humane treatment of American citizens in detention in other countries, and a State Department report indicates Alexander is being treated well. The report said he complains of chest pains and weakness in his legs but that there is no indication he has been mistreated or tortured.

"He is obviously suffering from stress and the situation is bad and uncomfortable for him, but I don't have information on particular medical problems he might be undergoing right now," Jones said.

Allowed to Retain Lawyer

Alexander was allowed a few weeks ago to select a Ghanaian lawyer to represent him, but under the laws of that country, attorneys do not have access to clients until they are charged, Jones said.

There is no limit to how long Alexander may be detained before he is charged and tried, State Department spokeswoman Nyda Novodvorsky said. And for now there seems no end in sight to the worrying and waiting of the Alexander family.

"It's been a nightmare," Florence Alexander said. "I wake up at night thinking about the movie 'Midnight Express,' the movie 'Papillon.' It's been terrible. I think my husband could die in there."

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