Headline — 20 January 2018 — by Rowland A. Parks
Andrew Bennett released on $100,000 bail

The Belizean attorney is wanted in the US (Puerto Rico) on 6 counts of money laundering

BELIZE CITY, Thurs. Jan. 18, 2018– For the first time since Belize signed an extradition treaty with the United States in 2000, someone for whom the US has issued an extradition request was released on bail at the Magistrate’s Court level.

That is what happened this morning when the attorney, Andrew Bennett, 46, appeared before Chief Magistrate Sharon Fraser to begin his extradition case.

After an almost hour-long submission by Bennett’s lead attorney, Anthony Sylvestre, during which he highlighted for the court some of the important judicial precedents that have been established in the rather complicated extradition process, Chief Magistrate Fraser agreed to grant bail to Bennett.

The court offered bail to Bennett in the sum of $100,000 plus one surety in the same amount. Chief Magistrate Fraser also ordered Bennett to surrender his travel documents and he is not to leave the jurisdiction without the permission of the court.

In addition, Bennett was ordered to report to the Eastern Division Police Station every Monday and Friday between the hours of 8:00 a.m. and 5 p.m.

After bail was granted, Solicitor General Nigel Hawke, who is representing the United States, asked the court to set an adjournment date. All the parties agreed to set February 2 as the date. Hawke then told the court that “the extradition proceedings are now deemed opened.”

In his submission, Sylvestre cited former Belize Chief Justice Abdulai Conteh, who famously said that extradition cases are to proceed with the defendant’s constitutional rights in mind.

Sylvestre submitted that Bennett knew about the US extradition request since December and had cooperated fully with authorities.

Sylvestre argued that Bennett was not a flight risk; therefore, the Government of Belize was not in danger of breaching its treaty obligation.

“There are no compelling evidence why he should not be granted bail,” he argued.  Quoting Chief Justice Conteh again, he said, “An accused person should not be punished before conviction by refusing to grant him bail.”

After Sylvestre had made his submission, Chief Magistrate Fraser asked Hawke if he wanted to say anything.

The Solicitor General rose and told the court, “Because of our treaty obligation we have to object to bail.” Hawke, however added, “We have gotten the full cooperation of Mr. Bennett.”

After Hawke’s brief remarks, Chief Magistrate Fraser asked Bennett “to please stand up.”

“Several things come to mind, listening to this matter and the first is whether or not the offense is a bailable one”, said the Chief Magistrate.

“From December 28, you had knowledge of this matter, yet you are still here”, Fraser told Bennett, who was now standing as the Chief Magistrate addressed him.

“The next question, I have is what is Belize’s Treaty obligation,” Fraser said.

The Chief Magistrate told Bennett, “You are an officer of the court. I have to consider whether or not it is a violation of your rights and presumption of innocence. I signed the warrant, but have not received any evidence as it relates to your matter.”

Chief Magistrate Fraser added, “I am going to offer you bail, but conditions have to be attached. I don’t think we would be violating our extradition treaty obligation.”

The Chief Magistrate then announced that she was offering bail in the sum of $100,000 plus one surety in the same amount.

The United States sent an extradition request for Bennett to Belize’s Foreign Minister in accordance with the extradition treaty Belize signed with the United States. Foreign Minister Wilfred Elrington signed onto the extradition request and sent the paperwork to the Attorney General’s Ministry, which then sent it to Chief Magistrate Fraser, who signed a provisional arrest warrant for Bennett.

Police did not have to go searching for Bennett; however. He turned himself in to authorities.

Bennett is wanted in the US Commonwealth of Puerto Rico on a 6-count indictment for money laundering. According to the evidence in the US’s so-called bundle, Bennett met with a US DEA agent who lured him into agreeing that he would launder millions of dollars for a drug cartel.

Official documents said that in July 2015, Bennett was indicted on a 7-count money laundering charge by a grand jury in Puerto Rico, following which an arrest warrant was issued for him.

The US said in its evidence against Bennett that it has a surveillance video of him receiving US $250,000 from a US agent in a sting operation.

The US evidence also indicated that in 2013, a confidential informant informed the US DEA that money laundering was being facilitated by high-level politically connected individuals and bankers using two international banks in Belize.

The informant then sent an undercover agent to meet with Bennett as an attorney capable of laundering money. The agent told Bennett that he was representing a Columbian and Puerto Rican drug trafficking organization that needed money to be laundered.

The agent allegedly told him that he could set up some shell companies and launder the money.

Bennett allegedly asked the agent for a retainer and inquired when the money would arrive, and in May 2015, $250,000 allegedly was given to Bennett in a backpack at the Riverside Tavern.

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Deshawn Swasey

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