In Policy Shift, American Is Extradited to Colombia After Drug Verdict in Absentia

Times Staff Writer

The United States, in what federal law enforcement sources describe as an important shift in policy, has extradited an American pilot to Colombia to serve 12 years in prison there after that country's courts convicted him in absentia of marijuana smuggling.

The apparent policy change, these sources said, is designed to encourage Colombia to send more of its drug traffickers to the United States for trial here--an issue that has figured in a number of recent terrorist attacks on members of Colombia's judiciary, including the bloody takeover last week of the national Palace of Justice in Bogota.

One official said the move shows that the United States is willing "to bend the rules" to satisfy Colombia's request in the case of Theodore Bruce Powell of Fort Lauderdale, Fla., who was caught by Colombian authorities in 1978 while co-piloting a DC-7 allegedly carrying seven tons of marijuana.

Question of Fairness

In the past, the government, citing concerns about whether U.S. citizens could be ensured fair trials, has refused to extradite Americans who were not present in foreign courts when they were convicted.

State Department officials Wednesday denied that Powell's case represented a departure from the policy regarding convictions in absentia.

"The facts of this particular case did not warrant the policy," said one official, noting that the defendant had been caught with the goods and fled a Colombian jail the day before he was to be arraigned. The State Department officials also contend that an appeal still is available, making the case "not totally closed."

But a key federal law enforcement official declared that "everybody's in agreement" that the move is an attempt to "send a signal" to Colombia on drug trafficking.

Employed by 'The Company'

At the time of his arrest, Powell, 46, was working for "The Company," a major marijuana-trafficking organization to which Colombian investigators eventually tied 600 tons of the illicit drug.

Nine days later, Powell and two others in the smuggling ring escaped from a Colombian jail in Riohacha, helped by two men wearing police uniforms and carrying submachine guns. He and his cohorts allegedly flew back to the United States from a clandestine Colombian airstrip.

Powell, on the advice of his lawyer, lived openly in Fort Lauderdale for nearly seven years, with his address and phone listed, and had contact with U.S. law enforcement authorities.

Apparently without any attempt to bring him back to Colombia to face narcotics charges, a criminal court in Riohacha tried Powell and found him guilty in May, 1983, but he maintains that he did not learn of the conviction for two years.

One-Year Interval

The trial took place more than a year after a U.S.-Colombian extradition treaty became effective, meaning that Powell could have been brought back for the proceeding, according to Powell's attorney, Michael Abbell of Washington, who formerly headed the Justice Department's Office of International Affairs.

Powell was arrested last April 20 at Los Angeles International Airport on U.S. charges that were later dropped, but he was then held on Colombia's request that he be extradited to serve the 12-year sentence.

Abbell, in a letter to State Department legal adviser Abraham D. Sofaer, argued against turning Powell over and cited the department's "longstanding policy of not surrendering a person who was convicted in absentia and who had no notice of the proceeding against him and no opportunity to defend himself."

'Fairness and Justice'

He said the policy reflects the State Department's "regard for the principles of fairness and justice which are at the heart of this country's criminal justice system."

But a State Department official contended that the judgment to send Powell to Colombia was made "fundamentally on a question of fairness. . . . His guilt was so evident."

Powell, escorted by deputy U.S. marshals, was flown to Colombia on Nov. 3. He became the second U.S. citizen to be extradited to Colombia under the 1982 extradition treaty for a narcotics matter.

In Colombia, U.S. extradition requests first are considered in the courts and then by President Belisario Betancur. Of the U.S. requests approved by the Colombian courts, Betancur has approved 17 and denied 11. An additional 19 have court approval and are awaiting his decision, according to the Justice Department.

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