BLOOMINGTON — A Minnesota man was sentenced to 18 years in prison Friday for delivery of khat, a plant material considered illegal in the U.S. but widely accepted in the defendant’s native Somalia.
Mohamed O. Samantar, 60, was stopped by Illinois State Police in June 2015 on Interstate 55 near the Interstate 39 interchange. A search of the rented minivan driven by a second suspect, Awil Aden, turned up 150 pounds of the substance, which is deemed illegal for its cathinone ingredient. Aden pleaded guilty in September to possessing a controlled substance and received 24 months of probation.
With a translator at his side to repeat what was said at his sentencing hearing, Samantar took the opportunity offered by Judge Paul Lawrence to make a statement. Saying he did not agree with the outcome of the bench trial in August, Samantar asked for leniency from the judge.
Defense lawyer Todd Ringel asked for a 12-year sentence, the minimum term available for the Class X felony carrying a maximum of 60 years.
Samantar fled Somalia because of civil war, said Ringel, “and came to the U.S. in an attempt to make a better life for himself.”
Ranked on par with heroin and cocaine by U.S. lawmakers, khat leaves are chewed by students and mixed for tea by men in Somalian cafes, said Ringel.
“It’s basically our version of happy hour,” said the defense lawyer.
Assistant State’s Attorney Erika Reynolds sought a 30-year sentence for Samantar, arguing that the van load of drugs with a street value of $30,000 merited more than a minimum sentence. The prosecutor also pointed out Samantar’s previous khat conviction in Iowa and his admissions to police that he was returning from a trip to Georgia where he picked up the drugs.
Samantar wanted to buy more khat but he was short on money, said Reynolds.
The defendant must serve 75 percent of the sentence and pay a $36,000 street value fine.
In his ruling, Lawrence considered Samantar’s history as a refugee from a war-torn country and his cooperation with police. But at 60 years old with a prior conviction for possessing khat, Samantar should have known better, said the judge.