In a case The Advertiser understands to be an Australian first, Melbourne man Mulugeta Fekdu Abebe and Ethiopian visitor Abdelkerim Ahmed Mudeser were jailed for at least 18 and 15 months respectively for importing 60kg of khat in May 2016.
Khat is a shrub native to East Africa which can be chewed, smoked or consumed in tea, producing a stimulant effect through the ingredient cathinone, which is stronger than coffee but far less potent than amphetamines.
Abebe and Mudeser pleaded guilty in the District Court to trafficking a commercial amount of khat, which can cause psychological dependence, but is commonly used by African people from childhood.
District Court judge Paul Rice said the Controlled Substances Act left him no option but to treat khat as being “equally harmful” as ice, heroin and synthetic drugs linked to sudden deaths.
Judge Rice said Mudeser was unaware of the potential consequences when he agreed to import two packages of khat, which were seized at Adelaide Airport.
“You assumed that if you were not allowed to have the drug … in South Australia it would simply be thrown out like any other plant or food material,” Judge Rice said.
Mudeser, a 58-year-old father-of-two with limited English skills, had been unable to contact his family including his 11-year-old daughter who needs to travel to Sweden for specialist treatment for a heart condition.
“Given the unrest in Ethiopia at present, you are worried about the safety of your family and you have not been able to contact them directly whilst you have been in custody,” Judge Rice said.
The court heard the seizure of khat was worth $3000 on the streets and the pair had planned to sell two-thirds to friends in Melbourne.
A similar amount of cannabis would fetch up to $400,000, while that much ice could yield more than $40 million.
Abebe — who fled conflict and arrived in Australia as a teenage cargo ship stowaway in 1990 — has worked helping young refugees from warzones, community centres and established radio and television stations for Ethiopian people in Melbourne.
In custody since their arrest, Abebe has completed five educational certificates and written a children’s book.
Both men received three-and-a-half-year jail terms, with Abebe handed an 18-month non-parole period and Mudeser a minimum 15 months expiring in August.