Federal agents have arrested two men on charges they smuggled diamonds into the country in violation of a law intended to prevent cash from being funneled to warring areas in Africa, officials said.
Maliki Mohamad Diane, 60, and Kouyate Saoud, 49, remained in custody after a detention hearing Thursday in federal court in Tucson, Immigration and Customs Enforcement spokeswoman Lauren Mack said.
A $10,000 cash bond was set for Diane's release, but he remained in custody pending an appeal by the U.S. attorney's office, while Saoud's detention hearing was postponed, Mack said. Both entered not guilty pleas, according to a federal public defender. They requested preliminary hearings, which have not yet been set.
The men were arrested at a Tucson motel Sunday after they reportedly sold a seven-carat rough diamond for $15,300 the previous day to undercover Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents posing as gem buyers.
Agents searching the men's room found 11,000 carats of rough diamonds, all believed smuggled into the country from Africa in violation of the Clean Diamond Trade Act, according to ICE. The 2003 law bans the import of diamonds unless they undergo a rigorous certification procedure to ensure they do not come from illegal trade.
Extrapolating the value of the seven-carat gem ICE agents bought in the Tucson undercover operation, the 11,000 carats of diamonds would be worth roughly $24 million.
‘Violence and bloodshed’
"The violence and bloodshed spawned by profits from the illegal diamond trade have left millions of people in Africa dead or homeless," said Alonzo Pena, special agent in charge of ICE investigations in Arizona. "We will not allow unscrupulous gem dealers driven by greed to put lives at risk."
Diane, of Guinea, and Saoud, a naturalized U.S. citizen from Sierra Leone who now lives in New Jersey, will remain in custody pending further hearings.
Diane's attorney, federal public defender Victoria Brambl, said she hasn't had an opportunity to review any evidence the government may have against her client.
"Obviously he's entered a plea of not guilty and there's a presumption of innocence," Brambl said. "We're hoping that a lot of facts develop in his favor."
Saoud's lawyer, Rosemary Marquez, did not immediately return a call seeking comment.
Saoud came under suspicion after he told undercover agents at a gem show in Tucson that he had uncut diamonds for sale, according to an ICE statement. They met with him at his motel and bought a stone on Saturday. During the meeting, he told the agents the diamonds were brought into the U.S. illegally and that he was expecting another shipment.