More than £15m worth of cannabis sent to Northern Ireland in international drugs trafficking operation, court hears
More than £15 million worth of cannabis has been sent to Northern Ireland in an international drugs trafficking operation, the High Court heard today.
Packages have been dispatched to multiple properties allegedly rented out as part of a racket linked to a growing factory uncovered in Italy, prosecutors said.
The suspected scale of the distribution emerged as a media studies student accused of being a leading figure in the gang involved applied for bail.
Yahan Wang, a Chinese national with an address at Southside Central Walk in Birmingham, faces seven charges.
The 24-year-old is accused of two counts of importing herbal cannabis, conspiracy to supply, and possessing the Class B drug with intent to supply between January and March 2015.
She is further charged with money laundering offences of transferring, converting and possessing criminal property, namely cash.
PSNI officers working with the National Crime Agency and Italian Carabinieri were said to have carried out searches at 18 properties in Northern Ireland this year.
Addresses in Belfast, Greenisland, Bangor, Newtownards and Ballywalter are all under investigation.
A prosecution lawyer said "a huge wealth of material" has been recovered, including multiple packages sent from Italy.
She claimed Wang is the woman who accompanied two Chinese males for rental viewings of some of the properties.
During the bail hearing it was claimed that £15m worth of cannabis has been sent to Northern Ireland in a period stretching back more than a year.
"The investigation is still very much in its infancy," the prosecutor said.
International letters of request are being prepared as the PSNI and Italian police potentially seek to exchange information.
Even though several arrests have been made, three other suspects are being sought.
Opposing Wang's bid for bail, the prosecution lawyer said detectives believe that, along with her boyfriend, she is "at the top of the food chain".
Defence counsel Kelly Doherty claimed the accused came to Northern Ireland to help her partner rent properties for a restaurant business venture.
The barrister was questioned about £60,000 said to have been in her client's bank account.
"That's an extraordinary sum of money for a student to have," Mr Justice Treacy remarked.
Ms Doherty replied that Wang believed her partner gave her the cash to help her lifestyle, unaware it may have been the proceeds of any criminal activity.
Trips to Italy were seen as a way to spend time with him, it was claimed.
"This is a simple case of a vulnerable young lady living in England as a student who has become involved with someone who has taken advantage of her," Ms Doherty added.
But the judge insisted: "On the face of it there's a prima facie case she is up to her neck in an operation which, so far as Northern Ireland alone is concerned, has involved the importation into Northern Ireland of drugs with a street value of over £15m."
Adjourning the bail hearing to next week, he gave the defence a chance to provide more details on Wang's university attendance records."
But he warned: "As things stand at the moment I'm unlikely to release her on bail."