The five sentenced in federal court in Alexandria were among 13 convicted earlier this year in an arduous monthlong trial that required simultaneous translation of the proceedings into Somali and Arabic. Most of the attorneys were court-appointed. Authorities say it was one of the largest khat smuggling rings ever disrupted, importing tens of thousands of pounds of the leaf, worth about $5 million, into the U.S.
The case developed years ago out of a concern that money from the khat trade flowing into Somalia could be funding terrorists. Authorities found no evidence of that in this particular conspiracy, and Ellis took pains during Friday's hearings to make clear that none of the defendants in the case should be associated in any way with terrorism.
The ringleaders of the conspiracy struck plea deals and received sentences of between two and three years, which could yet be shortened to reward them for testifying against the 13 co-conspirators at trial.
On Friday, several of the defence attorneys argued for no or minimal jail sentences, saying their clients were primarily users of the drug and only peripherally involved in its distribution. They also argued that khat's acceptance in the defendants' native cultures should be taken into account. Many of the defendants fled Somalia's civil war 20 years ago, and spent years in Kenyan refugee camps before making their way to the U.S.
Defence lawyer Joseph McCarthy said his client typically used khat while he drank tea and read a book quietly at home. At trial, defence lawyers presented medical studies that khat use was similar to ingesting an energy drink.
Prosecutors, though, said it's dangerous to minimize the danger of khat use. In their sentencing papers, prosecutors quoted from a study noting that in Somalia "most males are stoned on khat," one third of purchases in Yemen are khat, and that, despite the abject poverty in Yemen, "the fields are planted with khat, not corn."
Defence lawyers said the language was offensive, especially when prosecutors made the argument that one defendant was more like to become a recidivist because khat chewing was so ingrained in his ethnic group.
"Never have I had a U.S. Attorney's Office comment on the ethnicity of clients" in arguing for a certain sentence, said defence lawyer Bruce Cooper.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Mary Daly said the comment was not about their ethnicity.
"It was to point out that the defendants were on notice that khat was a problem in their home countries and yet they decided to sell it to Somalis in the United States," Daly said.
Ellis said Cooper was being hypersensitive and that the social acceptance of khat in the Somali community was a point raised by the defence, and one he accepted in handing out lighter sentences.
Despite the light sentences, most of the defendants indicated they plan to appeal their convictions.
By Matthew Barakat, The Associated Press