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Artillery Row

The New York Times cannot stop misrepresenting the law

It has become an embarrassment

Two weeks ago, the New York Times released two articles from British based journalists attacking the criminal justice system on the grounds of racial bias. The first article by former Buzzfeed journalist Jane Bradley took aim at joint enterprise and the conviction of Giovanni Lawrence. Lawrence was convicted of murder after acting as a driver for Ryan Cashin (who was responsible for chasing down and stabbing Rhamero West) and Marquis Richards (who handed Cashin a knife). The second article by Selam Gebredikan took aim at the law of conspiracy. It concentrated on the case of Ademola Adedeji, who was convicted of conspiracy to commit GBH with intent after he had sent details on a group chat concerning the location of an individual believed to have been behind the murder of his friend. Both articles glossed over some of the more damning facts in the cases and made legal errors. 

The New York Times’ latest foray into attacking the criminal justice system of England and Wales, written again by Selam Gebredikan, involved the case of Glodi Wabelua. The article presented Wabelua as a humble man trying to go straight, victim of “a novel interpretation of a 2015 law that was written to prevent the trafficking of Vietnamese women and children” (for which he was convicted) and an unduly restrictive slavery and trafficking prevention order (which applied after his release). A personal story reflecting on the subject’s difficult life and post-release travails was supplemented by artful photographs of a muscled Wabelua posing in a gym, at the park, at a local barbershop and training to become a truck driver. 

The writer neglected to mention some of the more pertinent details

The article missed the relevant legislation under which Wabelua was convicted. Wabelua had first pleaded guilty on 30 January 2015 to an offence of conspiracy to supply class A drugs (heroin and crack cocaine). Further charges were later brought against him. Originally, a judge found that there was no case to answer on those charges, but the prosecution successfully appealed against that ruling. On 17 April 2019, Wabelua was convicted of a trafficking offence. The New York Times article suggested that he was convicted for a trafficking offence contrary to section 2 of the Modern Slavery Act 2015. In fact, it appears that he was convicted for trafficking under section 4(1A) (b) of the Asylum and Immigration (Treatment of Claimants etc) Act 2004. The offences under the 2015 Act do not apply to offences committed before 31 July 2015. Wabelua’s offending took place between 2012 and 2014. The prosecution applied legislation which had been enacted in the Blair era, then. The assertion by the New York Times that “Wabelua became a test of the government’s interpretation of its new powers (emphasis added) was, therefore, quite false. 

As with the previous articles, the writer neglected to mention some of the more pertinent details of the case. Wabelua was given a sentence of three and a half years’ imprisonment by HHJ Kauru. Together with Michael Karemera and Dean Alford, Wabelua had been part of a “county lines” gang. The gang supplied drugs from London to Portsmouth and Folkestone. They had used mobile phones to advertise drugs, then despatching couriers to take the drugs to the users. They recruited six victims between the ages of 14 to 19 — one of whom suffered from mental health problems — in order to transport the drugs. The victims received instructions via mobile phone regarding drop off locations. Sometimes the victims were forced to carry the drugs in their cavities. They would then carry the cash back to London. 

The gang exercised control over the six victims. They were, for instance, forced to stay in the homes of local drug users in Portsmouth, surrounded by needles and drug paraphernalia. Their movements were controlled — they were not permitted to leave Portsmouth until the drugs had been sold — and they were required to ask for permission to buy food. When one of the victims had been robbed of drugs and money, associates of Karemera stripped him naked and placed a gun in his mouth in a mock execution. The New York Times made no mention of this background. Eventually, the victims were arrested by the authorities, which led to the gang being identified. 

Contrary to the assertion by the New York Times that the Modern Slavery Act 2015 was written to prevent the “trafficking of Vietnamese women and children”, the Act had, in fact, had been designed for a much wider purpose. Indeed, as previously mentioned, the offence under which Wabelua was convicted, section 4 of the Asylum and Immigration (Treatment of Claimants etc) Act 2004, was itself broad enough to apply to “travel within the United Kingdom”. Wabelua had not been responsible, according to the article, for “smuggling anyone into the country, but for dispatching a 16-year-old runner to sell drugs”. However, in the Modern Slavery Strategy the Home Office said that: 

Not all victims of modern slavery are trafficked across the border. We know that the internal trafficking of victims to other parts of the country takes place, and other forms of modern slavery take place that involve no movement of the victim at all. 

Moreover, in clause 2(1)(c) of the Draft Modern Slavery Bill from 2013, a person commits an offence if he intentionally arranges or facilitates “(c) the travel of V within the United Kingdom or another country, with a view to V being exploited”. The Draft Bill explained that in order to apply (and advance on) international law on modern slavery and trafficking it would: 

  • Consolidate and simplify existing slavery and trafficking offences to provide clarity and focus when investigating and prosecuting traffickers; 
  • Increase the maximum sentence available to life imprisonment so that offenders receive the punishments they deserve; 
  • Introduce civil orders to restrict the activity of those who pose a risk and those convicted of slavery and trafficking offences, strengthening our ability to cut this criminality; 
  • Create a new Anti-Slavery Commissioner role to galvanise law enforcement’s efforts to tackle modern slavery; 
  • Establish a legal duty to report potential victims of trafficking to the National Crime Agency (NCA) to build a clearer picture of the nature of this hidden crime

The Act itself added that the defendant may be guilty if he “knows or ought to know that another person is likely to exploit V in any part of the world during or after travel” and still included travel as “travel within any country”. Accordingly, far from being directed only at cross-border trafficking, the Act was an attempt to set international standards on the treatment of modern slavery and trafficking and, as such, was deliberately designed to protect vulnerable persons from exploitation — the aim of which had been discussed by the Home Affairs Select Committee in 2009. 

Protecting vulnerability is the point

The article went on to make the point that the victim had apparently consented to taking part as a drugs courier, saying “The 16-year-old runner held similar views. He told the police that he knew what he was doing and was aware of the risks”. The R v K judgment makes clear, however, that “when the provision is viewed as a whole it is clear that the mischief it seeks to address is the very fact that a vulnerable person has consented; the Act is seeking to protect the young and the vulnerable from their own decision making”. Under 18s would be classed as “young” and “youth”, according to the R v K judgment. By way of comparison, it is no defence for a person over the age of 18 to maintain that a person under the age of 16 had consented to sexual activity when charged under section 9 of the Sexual Offences Act 2003. Protecting vulnerability is the point. Jane Bradley, defending the article, made the point that “Globi himself was recruited at 13”, but, of course, many sex offenders were victims in their younger years. They remain criminals all the same. 

Wabelua was also the subject of a slavery and trafficking prevention order, which applied after his release. “Some read like those of a sex offender,” said the New York Times. His Instagram account is restricted to over 18s, and he cannot be near children or go to schools or youth clubs. This should scarcely be surprising. As stated, the purpose of the orders is to stop exploitation. The Act of Parliament was designed to minimise the risk posed by offenders who had targeted under 18s and vulnerable persons. The conditions are akin to those of a sex offender precisely because the government saw slavery and trafficking as having significant parallels to it. 

The New York Times has followed the same pattern as with its previous articles: it makes singular errors of law and glosses over inconvenient facts. It has done so first in respect of joint enterprise, then conspiracy and now modern slavery. In the name of activism, it has ignored the impact of serious offending on communities and the legitimate interest governments have in tackling it. Any reader of the New York Times should look on its reporting on criminal justice in England and Wales with a sceptical eye.

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