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Alleged head of plot to smuggle cannabis into Northern Ireland 'travelled to Belfast to buy trainers', court hears

By Alan Erwin

The alleged head of a plot to smuggle nearly £20m worth of cannabis into Northern Ireland said he travelled to Belfast to buy training shoes, the High Court has heard.

Prosecutors claimed Wenjie He was at the top of a crime gang that trafficked massive amounts of drugs from Italy.

The Birmingham-based 39-year-old rented properties used as distribution houses for the illegal consignments, it was alleged.

Details emerged as He was refused permission to return to England to be with his children while his wife is in China.

The accused is among 13 people charged with roles in a suspected operation uncovered following a major investigation involving the PSNI, National Crime Agency and Italian Carbinieri.

Up to 80 packages, each containing around 10 kilos of cannabis, were sent via a courier service between January 2014 and March 2015.

Addresses in Belfast, Greenisland, Bangor, Newtownards, Ballywalter, Larne and Ballyclare were among those allegedly used in the international smuggling plot.

An estimated £15m worth of drugs was delivered to Northern Ireland.

Another 8,500 cannabis plants, believed to have a value in excess of £4m, were seized during raids on three growing factories in the Prato area of Italy.

He, with a current address at the Glen Road in Belfast, is charged with 11 offences including importing and conspiracy to supply Class B drugs, possessing cannabis with intent to supply and concealing criminal property.

Prosecution counsel Stephanie Boyd said the investigation showed deposits into his bank account from various locations in Northern Ireland, and a financial trail involving activity in Switzerland and Italy.

He was arrested after travelling to Belfast with a co-accused girlfriend in 2015.

Mr Justice Deeny was told the accused also stayed at the Europa and Stormont hotels in the city with three other people allegedly linked to the crime gang.

Material retrieved from one room was linked to one rented house where 17 kilos of cannabis was recovered, the court heard.

Mrs Boyd said He claimed to have only been in Northern Ireland three or four times in the past 10 years.

"He said the purpose of the visit with the female co-accused was to buy training shoes he couldn't buy anywhere else," the barrister added.

Opposing his application to vary bail terms, she argued: "Police have real concerns about this applicant being allowed to travel to Birmingham, they say he's the top of the tree in a criminal gang.

"He has finances and means to obtain false identification in order that he could flee the jurisdiction."

It was revealed that two co-accused have already absconded since being granted bail.

Defence counsel countered that He is a British national who has made no effort to quit the jurisdiction since being released from custody a year ago.

He stressed that his client only wanted temporary permission to be with two children he hasn't seen since last summer.

But refusing the application, Mr Justice Deeny backed the prosecution's concerns.

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