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|Culture clash over monkey meat ends up in court|
|Sep 16, 2007|
|Legal Actions Concerning your Rights > Defending Yourself|
|Culture clash over monkey meat ends up in court |
by FRANK DONNELLY
Sunday September 16, 2007, 7:42 AM STATEN ISLAND, N.Y.
-- Monkeys are sacred to a Liberian native who emigrated to West Brighton more than two decades ago. Mamie Manneh and members of her church say eating primate parts -- known as bushmeat -- conforms with their religious beliefs and imbues them with the cunning and agile animal's spiritual power while also helping them "get closer to God." Federal prosecutors look at it another way.
They contend Ms. Manneh, 39, broke federal law and an international wildlife treaty by illegally importing 65 pieces of smoked bushmeat, including primate parts, into the country early last year. The protected wildlife parts carry the risk of "numerous" infectious diseases including tuberculosis and Ebola, prosecutors allege. The clash of cultures -- and the potentially precedent-setting case -- continues to play out in Brooklyn federal court almost two years later with a pretrial hearing on motions to dismiss scheduled for Thursday. The case is so hotly contested that both sides have enlisted a small posse of experts and together are expected to spend tens of thousands of dollars before a resolution is reached. Ms. Manneh, who also is known as Mamie Jefferson, could face up to five years in a federal penitentiary if convicted of smuggling. But one of her lawyers says the outcome of the case -- seen by the defense as a battle over a protected religious freedom -- will affect many more people than her client. "This case represents a unique opportunity to affect the behavior of thousands of African bushmeat users in the United States by reasonably and fairly approaching this one," said Jan A. Rostal, an attorney for Ms. Manneh said in a May letter to the court. "It has never been Ms. Manneh's intention to make this case such a public and consuming venture," wrote the lawyer. "[However], we have no reservations about the sincerity of Ms. Manneh's religious beliefs and are moved by the fact that her shipment was hardly 'smuggled' at all, but rather marked as 'foodstuuf' [sic] and accompanied by forms filed with the ... USDA, ( U.S. Department of Agriculture) inviting inspection." The case appears to have such significant implications that the Manhattan-based white-shoe law firm of Milbank, Tweed, Hadley and McCloy is offering Ms. Manneh pro bono assistance. The case dates back to January 2006, when federal agents at JFK International Airport allegedly discovered several dozen pieces of illegal smoked bushmeat in a shipment to Ms. Manneh from Guinea, a West African country. The contraband-- including monkey skulls, limbs and torsos, along with antelope parts -- was buried beneath smoked fish. Agents later found 33 pieces of dried, smoked bushmeat in the garage of Ms. Manneh's Bement Avenue home. The primate parts comprised green monkey and hamadryas baboon -- animals protected under the Convention on International Trade in the Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora ( C.I.T.E.S.), an international treaty among more than 170 countries. The aim is to ensure that international trade in specimens of wild animals and plants does not threaten their survival. In an unrelated case, authorities recently arrested five men in Colorado and Texas for alleged C.I.T.E.S. violations for smuggling the skins and parts of sea turtles and other species. The defense maintains Ms. Manneh did not smuggle in the bushmeat and that authorities fail to see the big picture. "This is really a case for education, not prosecution," said Ms. Rostal said in a telephone interview last week. "There are people in the conservation community talking and thinking about incorporating Africans into their conservation strategies. The irony here is that the government sees international sport hunting as a conservation tool, and that includes primates. We think it's time that authorities see Africans as allies and not enemies in the conservation movement." The defense has some heavy hitters on its team. Isabel Mukonyora, a religion professor and scholar at Western Kentucky University, testified at a recent pretrial hearing about African religious rituals and the role of totems such as bushmeat. Jacob K. Olupona, a professor of African religious traditions at Harvard Divinity School, submitted a letter to the court last week on a similar topic. The defense also has consulted Edward Lama Wonkeyor, a professor of African-American studies at Temple University and Dr. Roger Skinner, a former British government health official. In addition, 17 members of the church Ms. Manneh attends in Stapleton, Christ Memorial Christian Church, signed an affidavit attesting to their practice of eating bushmeat. The defendant, who had been rearing 11 children of various ages, is currently serving a two-year state prison sentence in an unrelated case for running over her husband's girl friend in the parking lot of a Mariners Harbor movie theater in February 2006. The victim survived. Robert Nardoza, a spokesman for the U.S. attorney's office for the Eastern District of New York, said he hadn't heard of a similar case in his four years at the office, although authorities in other jurisdictions around the country have prosecuted defendants for alleged C.I.T.E.S. violations. Nardoza declined further comment because the case is pending. Nonetheless, the feds appear "loaded for bear," so to speak. At a pretrial hearing last month, prosecutors produced their own religion expert along with the defendant's former minister, who refuted her claims of bushmeat's religious significance. Also taking the stand were out-of-state officials from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). The government contends it has "compelling interests" in adhering to C.I.T.E.S. and the conservation interests served by the treaty, according to briefs submitted by Assistant U.S. Attorney Jonathan E. Green, who is prosecuting the case. The U.S. also has a strong interest in controlling its borders. Dr. Glenda Gale Galland, a veterinarian and animal-disease expert with the CDC, testified there was concern about the potential for the spread, from primates to humans, of diseases to include Ebola, measles, tuberculosis, monkeypox and retroviruses similar to HIV. However, she also admitted she was not aware of any documented cases of such diseases being spread through consumer bushmeat. Nardoza declined to say how much cash the prosecution has spent. Ms. Rostal, Ms. Manneh's legal-aid lawyer, also declined to discuss defense costs, although taxpayers likely will foot a total bill amounting to tens of thousands of dollars before the matter of disposed of. And if the presiding judge's comments are a barometer, Ms. Manneh could be in for a rough ride. While saying she had legal standing to argue her case, District Judge Raymond J. Dearie said he didn't see a "rosy road for the defense," according to a transcript of an Aug. 3 proceeding. "It's difficult for me to understand how the defendant, assuming she can convince me of her good faith belief and practice, how she could confront the issue of the government's compelling interest, not so much to forbid the importation of this material, but to control it," said Dearie, who is not expected to rule Thursday on motions to dismiss the case. "That, after all, is the question." The case has apparently taken a toll on the defendant. Dearie approved a defense request for psychiatric tests of Ms. Manneh, which were to have been performed Wednesday. Ms. Manneh was diagnosed in March 2006 with schizoaffective disorder and chronic mental illness, according to an Aug. 10 submission to the court by Ms. Rostal. Since being transferred to a federal lockup in Brooklyn while the pretrial proceedings progress, the defendant has not received the psychotropic medicine or treatment she was given in state prison, Ms. Rostal said. She "appears to have been deteriorating," Ms. Rostal wrote, adding the defense would pay for the evaluation at its own expense.
Frank Donnelly is a news reporter for the Advance. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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