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{UAH} Uganda: When Ugandan Envoy Was Arrested Over Illegal Arms Deal

Uganda: When Ugandan Envoy Was Arrested Over Illegal Arms Deal

Photo: Illustrations by Danny Barongo
An illustration of former Ugandan ambassador to the United States Stephen Katenta-Apuli being arrested by an FBI agent.

First, Uganda was thrown in the spotlight when a Uganda Airlines cargo plane was grounded in September 1991 in Yugoslavia with illegal arms.

Then a few months later, Uganda again hit international headlines when its ambassador to the United States, Stephen Katenta-Apuli, and a presidential aide, Innocent Bisangwa, were arrested over an alleged illegal arms deal on August 18, 1992.

Katenta-Apuli and Bisangwa together with two of their co-accused, Maj Gen Mouni Fahmy and Col Fonad Sultan, both former Egyptian army officers, were arrested at a warehouse in Orlando, Florida.

The four were in the company of Diane Lewis, an American arms dealer. Later the same day, another member of the group, Nezih Kent, an American of Turkish origin, was picked from the John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York.

The arrest followed a 14-month sting operation by the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and American customs agency.

Within hours of the arrest, ambassador Katenta-Apuli was released, thanks to his diplomatic immunity, while the others were kept in custody by the FBI and customs agents. The group was said to be planning to smuggle 400 TOW anti-tank missiles and 34 TOW launchers.

According to The Monitor of August 21, 1992: "The missiles were to be attached to 12 helicopters purchased by the Uganda military. The suspects were to face a 15-year jail sentence if convicted under the American arms smuggling laws."

These kinds of missiles were developed in the 1960's and the US first used them during the Vietnam War in the 1970's. They were later exported to the Middle East were they were used by both Iran and Israel.

The missiles are optically-tracked and can be fired from both helicopter and ground launchers. They are used against heavily armoured, fortified and bunker targets.

The Ugandans and Egyptians were arrested at a warehouse in Orlando as they allegedly made final purchase arrangements for the anti-tank missiles.

The Orlando Sentinel reported that: "The head of the US attorney's office in Orlando, Roberto Moreno, said Katenta-Apuli went to the warehouse on the day of the arrest to inspect the missiles where the undercover agents posed as the arms dealers."

But when the same paper contacted the ambassador, he replied: "I don't know what you are talking about."

But Joe Henderson, the head of the customs in Orlando, told The Orlando Sentinel, "the group wanted to take the arms to Uganda."

Planning and shipping

The head of customs in Orlando Henderson described from how the deal was hatched to the time the suspects were arrested.

"On June 9, 1991, Fahmy approached a customs agent informant Stephen Arnold and asked him for information about the pricing and delivery of 600 TOW missiles and 35 launchers. In the subsequent conversations the deal was narrowed down to 400 TOW missiles and 34 launchers which Fahmy said were destined for Uganda.

Fonad Sultan was introduced to the customs informant as the person who was brokering the deal through a Swiss front company. Other people including the Turkish-born Kent were later introduced as the one to arrange the insurance with a European company for the shipment which was to be sent via a freighter to Cyprus then flown to Uganda.

On Sunday, August 6, the agents met Kent, the insurance person in the cocktail lounge of at JFK International Airport from where he admitted that he was an international arms dealer.

The following day, which was a Monday 7, Fahmy and Sultan while inspecting the TOW missiles in a warehouse in Orlando where joined by ambassador Katenta-Apuli and Bisangwa to inspect the equipment."

Before court

When the suspects first appeared before court, in which they applied for bail, The Orlando Sentinel reported: "The suspects appeared stunned and confused by the proceeding to have them held without bail at the Seminole county jail. US attorney Judy Hunt opposed the bail application, saying the non-American nationals accused would flee the country once granted bail."

During the bail application, Joe Henderson from the US customs who headed the sting operation, said: "These people are real. They said they have been in the business for a long time and they have connections all over the world."

On the first day of the bail application Bisangwa's lawyer Robert Leventhal was quoted by The Orlando Sentinel saying: "I will make sure that no charges are brought against my client before a grand jury in the Florida court."

Bisangwa was granted bail August 28, 1992, but the conditions of the bail included him wearing an electronic monitoring device.

Bisangwa in the end got bail in what both the American newspapers and the prosecutors called a "unique deal".

The bail came after a week of negotiations between the attorney general's office and the US state department. It was Ugandan minister of State in the President's Office, Balaki Kirya, with American connection that brokered the bail agreement.

US assistant attorney Judy Hunt said the bail agreement required the Uganda government to post a $1m bond secured by Uganda House in New York.

The 14-storied building constructed by the Idi Amin regime was valued at $14 million.

"The Uganda government has agreed to pledge $2m if Bisangwa flees. This is fairly unusual and a fairly innovative deal on the part of both governments," Bisangwa's lawyer said.

During the bail hearing, Uganda's representative to the United Nations Perez Kamunanwire and Francis Katana, the second officer in charge at the Ugandan embassy in Washington, were reported to have committed themselves to ensure that Bisangwa does not leave the country.

According to The Monitor of September 4, 1992, Kamunanwire said in court that he had met with the Uganda's President who had guaranteed that Bisangwa would not flee the US.

Leventhal, his lawyer, presented diplomatic letters confirming that Bisangwa would attend all court hearings while on bail and even offered to rent for him a flat where he would stay during the trial.

According to The Monitor of September 18, 1992, then permanent secretary, Ministry of Finance and Economic Planning, Emmanuel Mutebile "left for the USA carrying $60,000 fee for Bisangwa's lawyers in the gun scandal case."

According to the indictment, the missiles and their launchers where to privately be insured in Netherlands and disguised as construction and refrigeration equipment. Myroin Holding limited of Geneva, Switzerland, was named as the phony company set up by the two Egyptians to funnel the $18.8m for the deal.

It was reported that a security meeting was convened at the President's home in Rwakitura after which Attorney General Abu Mayanja was asked to write to his American counterpart to request for the release of Bisangwa and his co-accused.

The New York Times in its report at the beginning of September 1992 reported that US officials "did not know if the ultimate destination of the TOW missiles was really Uganda or some other country".

However, almost two months after the scandal broke, Uganda's ambassador to the US Katenta-Apuli returned home.

Two weeks after the arrest of Bisangwa, the US State Department asked the Ugandan government to lift diplomatic immunity against the ambassador so that he could stand trial.

Before the Uganda government could give in to the demand, the ambassador opted to leave the country voluntarily.

Judge throws out case

After three and a half weeks of testimony, a federal judge threw out conspiracy charges against the four accused persons.

US District Judge G. Kendall Sharp threw out the charges after two Ugandan officials testified that their government had not agreed to buy the missiles - and had not given any of the accused middlemen authority to make a final deal.

That testimony supported contentions by defence attorneys that defendants who had travelled to Orlando merely negotiated with undercover agents, but did not formally agree on an $18 million deal.

Sharp ruled there was not enough evidence to send it to the jury. "In this case we had a lot of talk... but there was never any agreement, any contracts," Sharp said, noting there was no "substantial act" to conclude the deal.

"In this case, I don't believe any of the four defendants are innocent," Sharp continued. "Perhaps they were ready, willing and able to violate the arms embargo."

Nevertheless, the verdict meant freedom for the four accused.

Sent from my MetroPCS 4G LTE Android Device

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