Former GAA star tricked into drug smuggling is freed
A Northern Ireland man who spent more than a year in a Hong Kong jail accused of being part of an international drug smuggling operation had been duped by a criminal gang, a judge has found.
Castlewellan man Brendan Toner walked from court a free man yesterday after a judge said he had been tricked into smuggling the killer drug crystal meth - bringing the former GAA star's 18 month ordeal to an end.
The 62-year-old had spent 17 months behind bars and a month on strict bail following his arrest last April at Hong Kong airport when crystal meth was discovered in his luggage as he attempted to board a flight to Australia.
He faced at least 20 years in prison if convicted.
Throwing out drug smuggling charges against Toner and five of his co-defendants yesterday, the judge told Hong Kong police they must target the "major miscreants" behind the drug trade because "they are the evil ones".
It is understood that the former Down GAA star had been tricked by a west African crime syndicate into carrying the drugs in his luggage.
The gang apparently grooms vulnerable people online into taking an all-expenses paid trip to Hong Kong on the lure of a financial deal, a romance, an inheritance or a humanitarian project.
Once in Hong Kong, the gang's victims were then handed luggage to take to Australia, which they did not know contained 'ice' hidden in the lining or in items inside.
Mr Toner last night said he did not want to comment about his release or his ordeal. He previously told the Belfast Telegraph that while he faced 20 years in jail, "s**t happens" and he was "coping great" in Hong Kong.
Mr Toner was one of nine alleged drug mules caught with between 1.5kg and 4kg of crystal meth hidden in their luggage.
The group were caught at Hong Kong Airport with a total of AS$36m (£16m) worth of the drug weighing 29.5kg as they set off for Australia and New Zealand between April 2014 and March 2015.
Mr Toner, who moved to England from Castlewellan several years ago, travelled to Hong Kong on April 13, 2014 from Newcastle Upon Tyne.
He was then due to travel on to Australia on April 21, 2014, but was arrested at the airport.
He was charged with one count of trafficking dangerous drugs and remanded in custody.
After a year-and-a-half behind bars awaiting trial, Mr Toner was released on bail in September to report to police every week.
His passport was seized so that he could not leave the country.
Down District SDLP councillor Laura Devlin recently told the Belfast Telegraph that the past few months have been "extremely turbulent" for Mr Toner and his family.