Casino ship captain fined $15,000 - Thursday 26th of July 2007

The Panamanian captain of casino ship Niobe Corinthian has been fined $15,000 for illegally importing 100 gaming machines into Bermuda.

Fermin Alfonso Reyes, 30, was found guilty along with the ship’s manager George Kezas, 72, after a trial that first began last September.

Kezas, like Reyes, faces a maximum penalty of two years in jail, a $100,000 fine, or both for breaking the law banning gaming machines from Bermuda. He will be sentenced next month.

Despite yesterday’s double conviction, lawyer Llewellyn Peniston, acting for the owners of the ship, said they still plan to operate it out of Bermuda in future. Mr. Peniston blasted Bermuda’s anti-gambling laws and said the owners — who he declined to name — plan to circumvent the importation ban by using gaming machines already on the Island from prior to the ban and operating them once in international waters.

TheNiobe Corinthian has long been at the centre of controversy. She first came to the Island in 2005, and was raided by Customs officials. However, Mr. Peniston, acting on behalf of Estrellas Management British Virgin Islands Ltd. — the company behind the ship — obtained a Supreme Court injunction to have them removed. The ship had been scheduled to be used as a floating casino once she sailed out of the jurisdiction of Bermuda and into international waters 12 miles offshore but left in early 2006 without having accomplished this.

According to evidence Mr. Peniston gave during the trial, that was again the plan when the Niobe Corinthian arrived back in Bermuda on July 24 2006.

However, the vessel was raided by Police on August 11 when she was moored at Marginal Wharf, St. David’s.

The officers seized the 100 slot machines on board, with Reyes and Kezas later arrested.

They were charged with importing the machines or causing them to be imported, but maintained their innocence throughout their trial. Their lawyers argued the ship was only in Bermuda in transit and it was not intended the machines should be used on the Island or in its waters. Kezas said he was managing director and general manager of the ship “in title only” and had nothing to do with bringing it to Bermuda. Reyes said he had no idea it was against the law to bring the machines in.

However, finding the pair guilty yesterday, Magistrate Khamisi Tokunbo said of Kezas: “I do not accept him or anything he says as a witness of truth.” Of Reyes, he said ignorance of the law was no excuse.

Reyes’ lawyer, Elizabeth Christopher, was unsuccessful in persuading Mr. Tokunbo that her client should be handed an absolute discharge, which would not be recorded against him as a criminal conviction. She said a conviction would threaten his career by blocking him from obtaining visas for ports of entry where he plies his trade. Speaking after the hearing, Ms Christopher said she will appeal the fine. Reyes declined to comment, although Kezas protested his innocence as he left court, and his lawyer Kevin Bean called for the law on gaming machine importation to be made clearer.

Ms Christopher had asked the Magistrate to ensure any fine handed to Reyes should be one he could afford — prompting Mr. Tokunbo to reply that Reyes could serve prison time in default or “maybe some nice principal out there will take care of it” in an apparent reference to the ship owners.

Mr. Peniston confirmed after the hearing that the owners would indeed pay the Captain’s fine — but declined to say who they are. Their identity has been shrouded in mystery throughout the court proceedings. In evidence during the trial, Mr, Peniston said he was instructed by two businessmen who were the beneficial owners of Estrellas, but that he was not at liberty to disclose who they are because their interest is held behind two trusts — the Circus Trust and the William Trust — which are represented by banks in Bermuda. He refuted the suggestion of Senior Crown counsel Carrington Mahoney that he himself was “the man behind the whole scheme”.

In answer to questions during the trial from Mr. Mahoney, Reyes said he met Neil Inchcup when the ship came to Bermuda in both 2005 and 2006. He agreed with the prosecutor that he had in the past described Mr. Inchcup as “the guy acting as the owner” of the Niobe Corinthian, and Mr. Inchcup introduced himself as such. Mr. Inchcup declined to comment on this when contacted by The Royal Gazette arlier this week. Last night, a woman who answered his cell phone said he was unavailable for comment.

Reyes and Kezas are the only people prosecuted in relation to the ship’s arrival in Bermuda last summer. Last night, former Inspector Nicholas Pedro, who headed the investigation but has since left the Police, told The Royal Gazette: “We know who the owners are but the ownership is cloaked in trusts. We obtained documentation from the British Virgin Islands regarding the companies. However, the fact that the beneficial owners were cloaked in trusts made it difficult to present a case against the owners. There was nothing to pass to the office of the Director of Public Prosecutions.”

Double conviction in marathon gaming machines trial

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