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Africa's land of sand and fugitives

Many facing charges at home find Namibia a welcome desert refuge.

December 08, 2006|Robyn Dixon | Times Staff Writer

SWAKOPMUND, NAMIBIA — In the "Star Wars" bar scene, Luke Skywalker finds himself in a seedy cantina on the remote desert planet of Tatooine, hangout for aliens, bounty hunters and dodgy fugitives from intergalactic justice.

Namibia, a southern African country that is 92% desert, just might be the earthly equivalent, or at least a refuge for people who may not want to be found.

Jacob "Kobi" Alexander, the former chief executive of Comverse Technology, the New York telecommunications software company that developed voicemail, is here. The Israeli citizen, who faces fraud and bribery charges in the U.S., fled in July to Namibia, which at the time had no extradition deal with the United States. If extradited and convicted, he could face 25 years in jail. Alexander has denied any wrongdoing.

Hans Juergen Koch is here too. The German citizen has just won a four-year battle against extradition from Namibia to his homeland, where he is accused of 203 counts of fraud worth almost $60 million, 12 counts of tax evasion and four counts of document falsification. Koch denies committing any crime and argues that he would not receive a fair trial in Germany.

And then there is Wesley Snipes. The actor, on location in Namibia filming the western-horror film "Gallowwalker," faces a U.S. arrest warrant on criminal tax fraud charges that could cost him 16 years in jail if he is convicted.

The "Blade" star has not indicated whether he will return to the U.S. to face charges that he failed to file income tax returns for six years and claimed nearly $12 million in fraudulent refunds.

Snipes declined requests for an interview. No extradition request has been made, but prosecutors in Tampa, Fla., recently stated that no reduction in charges or sentence had been offered to Snipes in talks about his return to the U.S.

The Orlando Sentinel reported that Snipes had e-mailed a journalist stating that the tax issue was more than 10 years old and that after extensive correspondence with tax authorities he had the impression that all the issues had been resolved.

"I will abide by the law, seek the protections the law affords me and as always seek the advice of competent [counsel] in an effort to resolve this issue. I'm not running, I'm not a fugitive, despite the misrepresentations in the press," he wrote the Sentinel.

Long before fellow movie stars Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt put the country on the map by deciding to have their baby here this year, Namibia was a desirable destination for a different kind of visitor.

They're not drawn by its sandy beaches lapped by the Atlantic Ocean or its luxury safaris. Far more alluring is its lack of extradition treaties with many countries, and the fact that many extradition efforts have failed. The latest failed attempt -- the Namibian Supreme Court ruled last week that there was insufficient evidence to hand Koch over the German authorities -- is likely to complicate Alexander's extradition and could make the country even more attractive to fugitives.

There is also what critics call a pervasive culture of corruption, nepotism and cronyism, making it possible to buy political connections with ease, and even to escape justice. Documentation crucial to court cases sometimes goes missing. Accused people escape conviction on technicalities.

Deputy Prosecutor-General Orben Sibeya contended that despite allegations that people had paid off politicians to get the right verdicts in trials, if such bribes occur they do not affect the outcome.

"When it comes to our work, politicians have no role whatsoever. I have not seen a single case where there's been influence on the prosecutors' office," he said.

Former Deputy Prosecutor-General Louis du Pisani, now working for the legal firm representing Alexander, said the standard of justice in Namibia's superior courts was high.

"Where the problem is perceived is in the lower courts," he said. "That's no secret. Everybody in Namibia is talking about it. The government recognizes it."

Several men whom Italian authorities have described as Mafiosi have spent time here, buying farms, hunting lodges, restaurants or businesses.

Vito Bigione, accused by Italian police of smuggling 2 tons of cocaine and 5 tons of hashish into Italy, beat an Italian extradition request in Namibia in 2000 but was later arrested in Venezuela and extradited. Bigione had a fleet of 12 oceangoing fishing boats in Namibia and an upscale coastal restaurant called La Marina.

Bigione denied the accusations during an extradition hearing and said he ran a legitimate fishing business.

Another man, Giovanni Bonomo, spent time in Namibia and neighboring South Africa and was accused of money laundering there. He was arrested by Italian agents in Senegal in 2003 and transferred to Italy, where he was wanted on suspicion of two murders, drug trafficking and money laundering.

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