Sentencing 'took just five minutes': Many traffickers claim dire financial circumstances forced them to become drug couriers. Mary Braid reports

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IGNATIUS, a 45-year-old Nigerian, remembers how his mouth dried up as he came through Heathrow. A few hours earlier, the unemployed marketing manager had swallowed 190 grams (7oz) of cocaine divided into little plastic pellets. It had a street value of pounds 16,000.

Today he is serving five years in Bullingdon Prison, near Oxford. Many of his fellow inmates are Colombian, Nigerian and Pakistani traffickers who claim dire economic conditions led to their recruitment as drug couriers.

'I had been out of work for five years. The Nigerian economy is very bad. I had to sell everything. Then my wife left and I had seven children to care for on my own. I borrowed some money from a man for my children's school fees and when I could not pay it back he said I had to carry drugs for him. He threatened my children and said he would kidnap them.'

Ignatius does not want his second name used. He fears reprisals from the drug baron back home and from his own government. Last year Nigerian ministers, embarrassed by the number of Nigerians in foreign jails for drug offences, introduced an automatic second term in a Nigerian prison for offenders when they finally arrive home.

Eight months into his prison sentence, Ignatius says Rosemary Abernethy, of Middlesex Area Probation Service, was his first friend. 'She is the only person I feel I have on the outside here. I have never been in Britain before and I did not know the legal system.'

Ms Abernethy set up contact with his family in Nigeria through the charity Hibiscus. For the links he is grateful but if the pre-sentence reports are affecting some judges, he was unlucky.

'My report was not considered by the judge. It was favourable. It showed I had never been in trouble before. But he was not concerned about my personal circumstances. The sentencing took just five minutes.'

Mohammed, a fellow inmate, arrived at Heathrow from Pakistan in November last year with 340 grams (12oz) of heroin with a street value of pounds 30,000 in his briefcase.

It is a familiar story, checked out by the contacts Middlesex Probation Service has established in Pakistan.

Mohammed had not been in trouble with the law before. He was a leather manufacturer until his business hit bad times. With six children to support he was persuaded by a friend to carry the drugs to help him out of the financial trouble.

He is scathing of the legal help he was given. He says he only met his barrister on the day he was sentenced and that he offered very little in mitigation. The judge, he says, hardly read the pre-sentence report.

'Although I had done this wrong thing, I wanted him to understand my problems. Everything I told my probation officer was confirmed from Pakistan. Five minutes after I arrived my case was finished. Five minutes for five years.'