Africa's land of sand and fugitives

Times Staff Writer

In the "Star Wars" bar scene, Luke Skywalker finds himself in a seedy cantina on the remote desert planet of Tatooine, hangout for aliens, bounty hunters and dodgy fugitives from intergalactic justice.

Namibia, a southern African country that is 92% desert, just might be the earthly equivalent, or at least a refuge for people who may not want to be found.

Jacob "Kobi" Alexander, the former chief executive of Comverse Technology, the New York telecommunications software company that developed voicemail, is here. The Israeli citizen, who faces fraud and bribery charges in the U.S., fled in July to Namibia, which at the time had no extradition deal with the United States. If extradited and convicted, he could face 25 years in jail. Alexander has denied any wrongdoing.

Hans Juergen Koch is here too. The German citizen has just won a four-year battle against extradition from Namibia to his homeland, where he is accused of 203 counts of fraud worth almost $60 million, 12 counts of tax evasion and four counts of document falsification. Koch denies committing any crime and argues that he would not receive a fair trial in Germany.

And then there is Wesley Snipes. The actor, on location in Namibia filming the western-horror film "Gallowwalker," faces a U.S. arrest warrant on criminal tax fraud charges that could cost him 16 years in jail if he is convicted.

The "Blade" star has not indicated whether he will return to the U.S. to face charges that he failed to file income tax returns for six years and claimed nearly $12 million in fraudulent refunds.

Snipes declined requests for an interview. No extradition request has been made, but prosecutors in Tampa, Fla., recently stated that no reduction in charges or sentence had been offered to Snipes in talks about his return to the U.S.

The Orlando Sentinel reported that Snipes had e-mailed a journalist stating that the tax issue was more than 10 years old and that after extensive correspondence with tax authorities he had the impression that all the issues had been resolved.

"I will abide by the law, seek the protections the law affords me and as always seek the advice of competent [counsel] in an effort to resolve this issue. I'm not running, I'm not a fugitive, despite the misrepresentations in the press," he wrote the Sentinel.

Long before fellow movie stars Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt put the country on the map by deciding to have their baby here this year, Namibia was a desirable destination for a different kind of visitor.

They're not drawn by its sandy beaches lapped by the Atlantic Ocean or its luxury safaris. Far more alluring is its lack of extradition treaties with many countries, and the fact that many extradition efforts have failed. The latest failed attempt -- the Namibian Supreme Court ruled last week that there was insufficient evidence to hand Koch over the German authorities -- is likely to complicate Alexander's extradition and could make the country even more attractive to fugitives.

There is also what critics call a pervasive culture of corruption, nepotism and cronyism, making it possible to buy political connections with ease, and even to escape justice. Documentation crucial to court cases sometimes goes missing. Accused people escape conviction on technicalities.

Deputy Prosecutor-General Orben Sibeya contended that despite allegations that people had paid off politicians to get the right verdicts in trials, if such bribes occur they do not affect the outcome.

"When it comes to our work, politicians have no role whatsoever. I have not seen a single case where there's been influence on the prosecutors' office," he said.

Former Deputy Prosecutor-General Louis du Pisani, now working for the legal firm representing Alexander, said the standard of justice in Namibia's superior courts was high.

"Where the problem is perceived is in the lower courts," he said. "That's no secret. Everybody in Namibia is talking about it. The government recognizes it."

Several men whom Italian authorities have described as Mafiosi have spent time here, buying farms, hunting lodges, restaurants or businesses.

Vito Bigione, accused by Italian police of smuggling 2 tons of cocaine and 5 tons of hashish into Italy, beat an Italian extradition request in Namibia in 2000 but was later arrested in Venezuela and extradited. Bigione had a fleet of 12 oceangoing fishing boats in Namibia and an upscale coastal restaurant called La Marina.

Bigione denied the accusations during an extradition hearing and said he ran a legitimate fishing business.

Another man, Giovanni Bonomo, spent time in Namibia and neighboring South Africa and was accused of money laundering there. He was arrested by Italian agents in Senegal in 2003 and transferred to Italy, where he was wanted on suspicion of two murders, drug trafficking and money laundering.

One of Bonomo's close associates was Vito Palazzolo, accused by Italian police of being a key Mafia figure. Palazzolo has lived mainly in South Africa, where he escaped extradition attempts to Italy. He owns a hunting lodge in Namibia and visits regularly.

Extradition struggles played out in recent years chronicle Namibia's struggle to shed its corrupt reputation and meet international standards of justice.

Carry out an Internet search on the countries that have no extradition treaty with the U.S., and Namibia pops up. But in September the country rushed through an amendment to its extradition law, adding the United States to the list of countries.

The move was apparently in direct response to the Alexander case: He was arrested Sept. 27, the same day the extradition law was amended.

Alexander fled New York to Israel in June and to Namibia in July. He was charged with backdating stock options for personal gain and has since been charged with attempted bribery in a bid to escape prosecution.

He and his family spent several weeks in the upscale Hotel Thule in the capital, Windhoek, while looking for a school and house hunting. They bought an anonymous-looking house in the gated community at Windhoek's country club -- No. 19, where a security guard slouches at the door to ward off unwanted visitors, an unusual sight in Namibia.

Through his lawyers, Alexander declined requests for an interview. "I intend to plead not guilty and defend the case on its merits if I am ever extradited," he said in an affidavit submitted at his bail hearing in October.

"He might have done his research and might have noticed that Namibia didn't have an extradition agreement with the U.S.," said Deputy Prosecutor-General Sibeya, rocking back in his chair before a desk piled high with case files. "He doesn't look stupid."

Sibeya warned that the extradition case could drag through the courts for years, like the Koch case.

Alexander's affidavit said that he intended to live in Namibia and that he had transferred about $17 million into the country with plans to bring in $43 million more. He spent more than $500,000 on the house and applied for a two-year work permit, which is quite difficult to come by here.

In a remarkably short time, Alexander also sewed up some business deals with well-connected Namibians. The affidavit said he had invested almost $1.6 million in Namibia.

Du Pisani, the lawyer with the firm representing Alexander, would not discuss the basis of the businessman's case against extradition. One focus could be the government's haste to rush through changes to the extradition law to facilitate Alexander's extradition -- in response, many believe, to intense pressure from the U.S.

"The fact that there's pressure is, I think, quite obvious," Du Pisani said. "I have never seen an extradition order processed so quickly."

Sibeya said Namibia could become a dubious haven for fugitives if it did not cooperate on extraditions.

"If he is let off on a technicality, I don't know what harm that will do to the country. I can imagine that the States would not be impressed," he said. "We don't want a situation where every fugitive is running to Namibia in the hope of getting off on technical grounds."

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