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Exotic language stalls U.S. trial of Guinea Bissau's ex-navy chief

By Richard Valdmanis

NEW YORK (Reuters) - The United States is struggling to prosecute one of the prized catches in its global war on drugs, Guinea Bissau's former navy chief Jose Americo Bubo Na Tchuto, because lawyers cannot find enough translators who speak his native Kriol.

Na Tchuto was arrested in a sting off the West African coast in April in the Drug Enforcement Administration's most high-profile capture of a suspected drugs kingpin in Africa. He was flown to New York where he has been in jail awaiting trial.

At a pre-trial hearing at U.S. District Court in Manhattan on Thursday, attorneys said they sought the help of the United Nations to find people to communicate with him and translate reams of evidence, but without much success.

"We only have one translator, and that is simply not enough," said Na Tchuto's lawyer, Sabrina Shroff.

It was the second such hearing since Na Tchuto's arrest that focused on problems finding translators, a problem which has delayed scheduling of his trial. Another pre-trial hearing is scheduled for November.

Guinea Bissau, a poverty-stricken former Portuguese colony neighboring Senegal, is believed by the United Nations to be a major transshipment point for Latin American cocaine headed for users in Europe. The United States and European countries have suspected the country's military of involvement in the drug trade for yeas.

Portuguese is the country's official language, but most Bissau-Guineans rarely speak it and instead use local Kriol dialects or tribal languages.

The U.S. Department of Justice accused Na Tchuto of plotting to import Colombian cocaine and export weapons, including surface-to-air missiles, to Colombia's FARC rebel group - labeled a terrorist organization by Washington.

He was seized in a luxury yacht off the coast of Guinea Bissau following a months-long undercover operation by the Drugs Enforcement Administration involving former FARC rebels and numerous recorded secret meetings.

Na Tchuto, a former fighter in Guinea Bissau's 1956-1973 independence war who is now in his mid 60s, has denied any involvement in drugs trafficking.

The sting also targeted Guinea Bissau's army chief, Antonio Indjai, who led a coup in 2012 that derailed the country's elections, but he avoided arrest by refusing to go offshore. Indjai, too, has denied running drugs.

Shroff said the delays were wearing on her client, who attended the hearing in a brown prison uniform alongside two of his aides and co-defendants, Papis Djeme and Tchamy Yala. "He's deteriorating. His cataracts are worsening. It is prison and old age," she said.

(Editing by Mohammad Zargham)

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