British girls guilty of trying to smuggle drugs out of Ghana

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The Independent Online

Two teenage girls from London are facing up to three years in a Ghanaian jail after they were found guilty yesterday of attempting to smuggle cocaine from Ghana to the UK.

Yetunde Diya and Yasemin Vatansever, from Islington, north London, were arrested in July at Kotoka airport in Accra as they waited to board a British Airways flight to London. Officers found 6.5kg of cocaine inside two laptop bags the girls were carrying.

The two 16-year-olds will be sentenced on 5 December and could face three years in a girls-only juvenile detention centre in Accra. Their families said they were "deeply disappointed" at the verdict and would launch an appeal.

They described the teenagers as "two extremely vulnerable young girls whose naivety was ruthlessly exploited by the men who lured them to Ghana and left them to this terrible fate". Their daughters, they said, were not "criminal masterminds".

Their arrest and subsequent trial in Ghana was criticised by Fair Trials International, which has been helping to fund their defence. A spokeswoman for the organisation, Sabine Zanker, said it would have been better to arrest the girls in London, not Accra.

"It would have been an opportunity to catch the people behind it," she said. "The girls played such a minor part in the operation."

Yasemin and Yetunde claimed they had been offered a free holiday in Ghana by a man they met in London. They told their parents they were going on holiday to France. Only when they were about to fly home were they asked to carry the two laptop bags, they said.

For the past four months the two girls have been held in a special cell in the Narcotics Control Board offices in central Accra. R'*'B music blasts out from their cell. According to one official the girls are "given whatever they want" and have been allowed out of their cells to sunbathe. After they complained abut the daily diet of rice and chicken, they were given pizza, crisps and fizzy drinks.

The special treatment is likely to come to an end once the teenagers are sentenced in two weeks' time. The juvenile detention centre where they are likely to serve their sentence in is "pretty grim", said Ms Zanker. "There are no education facilities and the hygiene standards will not be very good," she said.

Their sentence will be served in Ghana. There is currently no transfer agreement between the west African nation and the UK.

The girls were arrested by British and Ghanaian officers as part of Operation Westbridge, a joint operation tackling the problem of drugs being transported from South America to Europe via west Africa. For the past three years Ghana has been setting new records for drugs seizures in Africa.

On the night that the girls were caught, a 19-year-old Romanian woman was arrested at the airport with a briefcase lined with 10kg of cocaine in paste form. The find shocked officers. "It seems," said one official, "that the Columbians may now have a cocaine processing plant in Ghana itself."

Corruption in the ranks of Ghana's law enforcement has hindered Operation Westbridge's effectiveness. A senior police official was caught on tape earlier this year discussing cocaine shipments with five wealthy businessmen, known as the "untouchables". All the businessmen are currently on trial, but the police officer was not charged. "They have penetrated every level of security," said a Ghanaian official. "From the top to the very bottom."

The case of a vessel called the Benjamin illustrates this perfectly. Despite a tip off from British intelligence that the ship from South America was "worth a look", coastguards "missed" it. The ship was eventually found in port with just one of the 77 packages that the manifest said it was carrying still on board. The single package contained 30kg of cocaine. The package was taken to the offices of Ghana's Narcotics Control Board. By the next morning 5kg had disappeared.

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