Man convicted in biggest heroin importation case launches appeal on language grounds
A man jailed for 30 years for smuggling almost $10 million of heroin into Bermuda has claimed his ability to mount a defence was damaged by translation problems.
Josef Vlcek, from the Czech Republic, was convicted in 2019 of trying to smuggle nearly three kilograms of the drug into the island on a flight from London in 2017.
He has appealed against his conviction and the sentence.
Auralee Cassidy, who appeared for Vlcek, said his efforts to mount a defence were hindered by problems getting an interpreter, which made it more difficult to prepare his case and communicate with his lawyer.
Ms Cassidy said a translator was brought to the island before the trial, but arrived just days before the trial began.
She said that Vlcek was offered a “suitable” Czech interpreter who lived on the island for his police and Customs interviews, but she claimed the interpreter “was not interpreting”.
The court heard that there were discussions between Vlcek and the interpreter in Czech during the interviews, but Vlcek responded to most questions in English.
Ms Cassidy said that Vlcek was able to understand most English in “common circumstances”, his command of the language was not good enough for interviews with police and Customs officers.
She said: “My efforts to communicate with Vlcek about some very basic items and using words like ‘disclosures’, ‘interview’ and ‘caution’ created a blank look.”
Ms Cassidy said her client did not fully understand that he did not have to answer questions during the interviews with police and Customs officials.
She also told the court that Vlcek had suggested that the first interpreter had “stepped beyond” his role and had given legal advice, but that there was no translation of the conversations available.
Ms Cassidy said: “In the absence of a confirmation of what was actually translated, I cannot state that it was accurately translated. The issue is what was said in Czech by the interpreter.”
Ms Cassidy said that because it was not known what had been said, the interview could not be relied upon by the jury.
She added Vlcek’s sentence was too harsh because he would not be eligible for parole as he was not Bermudian and would be unable to secure a fixed address.
But Cindy Clarke, the Director of Public Prosecutions, said the court should be careful about walking a “dangerous line” by sentencing foreigners and Bermudians differently.
She added: “I would submit that 30 years is neither harsh nor excessive on the facts of this case – this case was the largest importation of heroin to date.”
Ms Clarke highlighted that Vlcek could make an application to be repatriated to the Czech Republic to continue his sentence.
She told the court that Janis Zegelis, a Latvian man jailed for 25 years in 2012 after more than 164kg of cocaine and a firearm were found on his boat, had been repatriated to Latvia for a portion of his 25-year sentence.
The Appeal Panel reserved their decision.
A Supreme Court jury heard that Vlcek was arrested at the airport on September 23, 2017, after Customs officers found a bulge in the lining of one of his suitcases.
A further search found three packages hidden in two suitcases which contained a total of 2.9 kilograms of heroin.
Vlcek told officials when the packages were found: “If it's gold, it's mine. If it's drugs, it's not mine.”
He said in a police interview that he bought the suitcases in an East London market, before he flew to the island from the UK and he had no idea how the packages got into his suitcases.
But Vlcek admitted during his trial he had lied to police and that the suitcases had been given to him.
He claimed that he had met two men while he was in London who offered to support his art career if he would bring packages of gold and diamonds from Johannesburg, South Africa to London.
Vlcek said he agreed and, after he returned, he was offered the flight to Bermuda as a “thank you” and was asked to transport the gold and diamonds to the island by someone who claimed to be a member of the Bermuda Government.
He added that he believed the valuables were hidden in the lining of the suitcase to prevent them from being stolen.
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