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U.S. judge hands four-year sentences to men in Taliban drug sting

By Nate Raymond

NEW YORK (Reuters) - Two men on Monday were sentenced to more than four years in prison for conspiring to help smuggle drugs into the United States on behalf of people they believed were part of the Taliban.

Martin Raouf Bouraima, 42, and Corneille Dato, 56, were among a group of seven men indicted in 2011 following an undercover investigation by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration targeting drug trafficking out of West Africa.

At a hearing in Manhattan, U.S. District Judge Naomi Reice Buchwald sentenced them to 50 months each in prison.

The men have been imprisoned since their arrest in Monrovia, Liberia, in February 2011. That means each has about 20 more months to serve.

Buchwald acknowledged the "limited role and relative culpability of the defendants in comparison to other defendants in the conspiracy."

But she said she was concerned that the two were aware they were giving aid to people they thought were involved with the Taliban in Afghanistan.

The case stemmed from a probe starting in 2010 in which two DEA informants posed as Taliban representatives to discuss with the men a deal involving hundreds of kilograms of cocaine and heroin.

Prosecutors say that in meetings with the confidential sources in Benin and Ghana, Bouraima and Dato along with two other men agreed to take in shipments of Taliban-owned heroin from Benin and transport them to Ghana.

They understood that some of the heroin would then be flown to the United States, prosecutors said.

A DEA source later told Bouraima and Dato that the U.S. drug proceeds would be transferred back to West Africa, where the money would be used to buy weapons for the Taliban, prosecutors said.

Bouraima and Dato, both of Benin, pleaded guilty in November 2012 and January 2013, respectively, to charges of conspiracy to import heroin and cocaine.

Another conspirator, Francis Sourou Ahissou, 48, was sentenced Wednesday to 5-1/2 years in prison after pleading guilty in May.

Two others, Alwar Pouryan, 39, and Oded Orbach, 55, are scheduled to be sentenced next month after Buchwald in a non-jury trial found them guilty of agreeing to sell weapons to people they thought were involved with the Taliban.

While convicted in connection with a purported Taliban conspiracy, neither Bouraima nor Dato appears to be Islamist. Their lawyers said at Monday's hearing that in prison, Bouraima took up Bible studies while Dato was baptized and received his first communion.

"I accept responsibility for what I have done," Bouraima said through a French interpreter.

The Taliban were pushed out of power in Afghanistan by the U.S. invasion that followed the al Qaeda attacks on U.S. targets on September 11, 2001.

The group has since waged an insurgency to overthrow the government of Afghan President Hamid Karzai and oust foreign troops.

(Editing by Xavier Briand)

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