A refugee from a war-ravaged part of Africa was sentenced Wednesday to 18 months in federal prison for importing 400 pounds of an unusual plant that is considered a controlled substance by the U.S. government.

Patrick Bahati, 24, will also spend six months in U.S. Customs custody and then must serve 36 months of probation under a condition of getting help for a drinking problem.

His attorney, Robert Steele, told U.S. District Judge Tena Campbell that there were reasons to reduce the sentence: Bahati has already served six months in jail, prosecutors agreed that a lower sentence that what could have been imposed would be appropriate, and Bahati had minimal involvement in the importation of the plant, khat, which is chewed in some parts of Africa and the Arabian peninsula. It serves as a stimulant and also can be hallucinogenic.

The judge, however, said she was concerned that Bahati has had DUI arrests in Utah and several charges of driving on a suspended license.

Prosecutor Robert Lund said Bahati has had 17 different criminal situations during a five-year period, and disputed the argument that Bahati was less involved in the importation of the plant than another defendant, Sherif Kadir Sirage, who was sentenced previously to four months in prison.

Both men were involved in importing shipments of khat from Ethiopia to Salt Lake City.

But Steele argued that Bahati, who is a Tutsi from the Congo and was in the United States legally because of the wartime conditions in his country, had experienced an "extraordinary" childhood of traumatic experiences. It is not uncommon for people who have endured such trauma to have problems adjusting to a new culture and some self-medicate with such things as alcohol.

Steele said Bahati's troubled childhood does not give him a "free pass" nor does it absolve him of responsibility for getting help for an alcohol problem, but Steele urged the judge to give Bahati a sentence that would be basically credit for time served.

Campbell agreed to reduce the sentence somewhat from a potential sentence of possibly 22 to 24 months. But she said that 18 months behind bars was reasonable under the circumstances.


E-mail: lindat@desnews.com