As China steps up pressure on Kenya to surrender 76 cybercrime suspects facing charges in Nairobi, some experts are warning the case could damage the two nations’ thriving economic relationship.
China has demanded extradition of the criminals, 75 Chinese and a single Thai national, after accusing them of cross-border telecommunication fraud and electronically swindling over 100 million yuan ($16.5 million) from Chinese victims. Chinese officials argue that because all of the victims are in China, the suspects should be extradited for further investigation and prosecution there.
“Taking into account the seriousness of the crime, the huge loss suffered by the Chinese victims and the friendly relations between China and Kenya, the Chinese government further requests the Kenyan government to repatriate the above mentioned suspects back to China at an early date,” Chinese Ambassador to Kenya Liu Xianfa wrote in a leaked letter to the Kenyan government.
But Kenya has so far refused China’s request. The east African country has instead detained the suspects and charged them with operating an unlicensed telecommunication facility, according to Kenyan police, who arrested the suspects in Nairobi in December. If found guilty, each suspect faces up to 15 years in jail or a fine of five million Kenyan shillings ($54,000). More charges are pending.
Kenyan officials have confirmed China’s request for extradition but maintain that any transfer will have to follow diplomatic channels.
“There is a case in court and the court process has to go through,” says an official from Kenya’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs who asked not to be named, citing the diplomatic sensitivity of the case.
Kenya’s Attorney General Githu Muigai told reporters in Geneva last week that any agreement for the transfer would have to meet Kenya’s justice system standards. He said the alleged cybercrime could have disrupted Kenya’s communication systems and infiltrated bank accounts and money transfer networks.
But experts warn that Kenya’s failure to agree to China’s request could rock relations between the two countries and put billions of dollars of investment at stake. Government officials from both countries have dismissed such concerns.
China is the largest foreign investor in Kenya and its second largest trading partner. According to China’s customs authorities, the bilateral trade volume reached $3.27 billion last year. Recently, China funded a high-profile railway line, that will boost trade between Kenya and its landlocked neighbors, with a $3.8 billion loan.
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