A South African woman who accidentally smothered her baby while trying to sneak over the Rainbow Bridge last week was told by a prosecutor Tuesday that she could spend anywhere from four years to the rest of her life in prison.
A sobbing Galiema Begg, 30, and two male relatives were arraigned in federal court on an indictment accusing them of conspiracy and smuggling of an illegal alien.
Ms. Begg stood with her head bowed and said nothing during the afternoon arraignment before U.S. Magistrate Judge Carol E. Heckman. After the hearing, she stood for a long time, sobbing and hugging her brother, before she was taken away by federal agents.
"She's lonely. She needs the support of her family. She feels like she has nothing to live for," said Rosemary Begg, who traveled from Miami to attend her sister-in-law's arraignment.
"Galiema tried for five years to come legally into the U.S. They kept denying her visa. She only tried (to sneak in) because she thought there was no other way to see her family."
Earlier in the day, the Niagara County district attorney's office dropped criminally negligent homicide charges and announced they were turning over the case to federal authorities.
Ms. Begg, her brother Achmat Begg, 31, and their uncle, Mohamad Tahir Toffie, 57, were arrested at the bridge Thursday evening after Ms. Begg's 8-month-old son, Mohamad Hadi Begg, died in his mother's arms.
The boy stopped breathing while he and his mother were hiding under blankets and clothes in the back of a sport utility vehicle entering the United States. They were planning to drive to Miami for a family reunion. Authorities said after an autopsy that the death appears to have been an accident.
Officials of the U.S. Immigration and
Naturalization Service said they have compassion toward the family, calling the baby's death one of the worst tragedies in illegal-alien smuggling in Western New York.
Because the death involved smuggling, Assistant U.S. Attorney Martin J. Littlefield said, all three could face life imprisonment. But he added that, under sentencing guidelines, a more likely prison sentence would be approximately four years.
"The government recognizes that the circumstances surrounding this indictment are a tragedy," Littlefield said.
However, he added, federal laws do include tough sentencing provisions for crimes that result in a death.
The possible sentences astonished Ms. Begg's sister-in-law. Rosemary Begg said the entire family is "already suffering enough" over the baby's death. She said the smuggling attempt was an act of desperation by a woman who wanted to be with her family in Miami.
Rosemary Begg said her sister-in-law is a former teacher of deaf children who has had some emotional problems while living in South Africa over the past five years. She said the problems worsened when immigration difficulties prevented her from traveling to the United States to visit her parents with the baby.
Galiema Begg had lived with her parents in Miami in the 1980s and went back to South Africa, unaware she would have legal problems if she tried to return, Ms. Begg said.
Buffalo attorney Daniel C. Oliverio, who represents the family with attorney Rodney O. Personius, said he is encouraged by discussions with Littlefield and U.S. Attorney Denise E. O'Donnell.
"I don't think any right-minded individual could possibly think a prison term is appropriate in this case," Oliverio said. "These are not professional smugglers, hiding a bunch of aliens in the back of a truck. This is just an absolute tragedy."
But even if authorities are lenient, Ms. Begg and her two relatives face possible deportation to South Africa, the defense lawyers said.
Judge Heckman ordered Achmat Begg to be released on $20,000 bail. She ordered Ms. Begg and Toffie to be held in jail until detention hearings are held.
David Van Wyk, an official of the South African consulate in New York City, attended the hearing at the Begg family's request.