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Every once in awhile, someone in the District goes down for Khat, an illegal and leafy stimulant popular in East Africa and parts of the Middle East. Recently, that person was Ethiopian immigrant Etana Shuremu, owner of Diredawa Cafe at 5333 Georgia Ave. NW—and one of the many people accused in the 2009 D.C. taxicab bribery scandal.
Authorities suspect Shuremu of being a major dealer. Reportedly, they recovered 300 pounds of khat worth $95,000 in connection with his arrest on April 14. Some of the substance, frequently used in Ethiopia but outlawed here in the U.S. since 1993, was found at his storefront.
The bribery-related accusations against Shuremu and 16 other defendants have nothing to do with khat. But the fact that he has two court cases going simultaneously was revealed at a federal court hearing regarding the bribery charges on Friday, when prosecutor Bryan Seeley told Judge Paul Friedman his side had learned of Shuremu’s narcotics bust, which will play out in D.C. Superior Court. The judge said the news was “concerning.”
During a break from the hearing, Shuremu’s lawyer, Howard Katzoff said prosecutors shouldn’t have brought up his client’s drug case. It wasn’t relevant. He said that prosecutors only did it to be dramatic.” They were just trying to get the judge’s attention,” he said. Prosecutors declined comment.
Katzoff also said that though he’s not representing Shuremu on his drug charge, he’s confident his client is innocent of running a khat connection out of his Sherman Circle area shop: “The evidence will show that my client wasn’t responsible for the items that were seized,” he said.
The attorney also said that Shuremu wasn’t “present” when the khat was found, but declined to elaborate. Sara Kopecki, who is Shuremu’s lawyer in the khat case, couldn’t immediately be reached.
Shuremu was one of almost 40 indicted in 2009 for bribing former D.C. Taxicab Commission chair Leon Swain. Swain was working with the FBI, who recorded the men handing him envelopes full of cash in September of that year. Most have pleaded guilty. Some have contended that’s because the men, all immigrants, feared deportation.
As the case has moved forward for the group, who are alleged to have given Swain money in exchange for under-the-table taxi operating licenses, their lawyers have said the men had no idea what was in the envelopes they gave Swain, as they were allegedly provided with them by a taxi industry bigwig named Yitbarek Syume.
Katzoff said he imagines his client “is very stressed.”
Photo by cliff1066