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The first extradition request by the United States government for a Marshall Islander to stand trial in the United States was authorised on Wednesday by the High Court in Majuro.
Marshall Islands Attorney General Filimon Manoni filed the extradition request with the High Court Tuesday, which followed approval Monday by the Cabinet of the US government's extradition request for extradition of former US Army soldier Keller Bellu, who was charged in 2015 in a Washington state court with two felonies related to his time in the US Army.
High Court Chief Justice Carl Ingram held hearings Tuesday and Wednesday before issuing his order approving the extradition plan.
Bellu, 34, also waived his right to contest the extradition and said he would voluntarily return to stand trial in the US in a document presented to Wednesday's court hearing.
This is the first extradition on record between the US and the Marshall Islands.
Bellu had been arrested earlier in the week in Majuro at the directive of the Cabinet and was brought to court by police.
Since returning to the Marshall Islands three years ago, he had been working at a local hardware store.
The US State Department issued a diplomatic note to the Marshall Islands government seeking its cooperation in extraditing Bellu according to an extradition agreement that is part of the Compact of Free Association treaty between the two nations.
“Bellu is wanted to stand trial in the United States for possession of stolen explosive materials and possession of an unregistered firearm,” said the diplomatic note from the US Embassy.
A Light Anti-Tank Weapon (LAW) weapon was taken at the end of a deployment in Afghanistan in 2010 and smuggled in a large container with personal items of various soldiers who were returning to the US.
The various soldiers interviewed by US law enforcement said other soldiers were the ones who actually put the anti-tank weapon into a container for shipment from Afghanistan and also removed it once back in the US.
The testimony does not show that Bellu participated in this, but that he was in charge of the supply room where the weapon was secreted into a shipping container so it could be shipped to the US by several other soldiers.
The anti-tank weapon is of Canadian origin.
“Bellu's statements revealed that he knew that the LAW rocket was hidden and stored for illegitimate, non-warfare purpose in the supply room, which he was responsible for and had a duty to maintain, and thus had a responsibility to report this to his superiors,” said Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) Special Agent Michael Collier, Jr. in an affidavit attached to the extradition request.
“Rather than taking corrective action, Bellu repeatedly contributed to, and facilitated, the illegal and dangerous movement of the LAW rocket out of military control.”
Bellu was interviewed in Honolulu in March 2015 by ATF and other law enforcement agents. He was charged together with Anthony Laitta November 12, 2015 in the District Court of Washington state with two criminal counts: possession of stolen explosive materials and possession of unregistered firearm.
These charges refer to a "loaded M72A5 Light Anti-Tank Weapon (LAW) shoulder-fired rocket launcher, which had been shipped and transported in interstate and foreign commerce, knowing and having reasonable cause to believe that the explosive materials were stolen."
The charges carry a maximum penalty of 10 years' prison time.
The year before Bellu was charged in Washington, three men from his Army unit in Afghanistan were charged with illegal possession of the anti-tank rocket.
Two of the three pleaded guilty to reduced misdemeanour charges of “improper storage of explosives.”
One received a six-month suspended sentence, the other a one-year suspended sentence. Laitta, charged together with Bellu in 2015, has already pleaded guilty to lesser charges and was sentenced to a one-year suspended sentence.
Bellu turned in his passport to the High Court at the direction of the Chief Justice, who also authorised his release from jail for work pending arrival of US Marshals to escort him to the US for trial.
SOURCE: MARIANAS VARIETY/RNZ PACIFIC/PACNEWS
Pacific Islands News Association
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International News Safety Institute (INSI)
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