Pair refused bail over £15m international cannabis plot
Nearly 80 consignments of cannabis were successfully imported into Northern Ireland in a multi-million pound international trafficking operation, the High Court heard yesterday.
Prosecutors disclosed that 16 people have now been charged in connection with the suspected racket linked to a drugs growing factory uncovered in Italy.
The scale of the distribution and continent-wide investigation was confirmed as two men accused of being part of the gang involved were refused bail.
Xin Chen (23) and Zhenchao Chen (34), both with addresses at Annadale Flats in Belfast, each face charges of importing and conspiracy to supply herbal cannabis.
They were arrested as part of a joint probe involving the PSNI, National Crime Agency and Italian Carabinieri.
Officers carried out searches at up to 18 properties in Northern Ireland earlier this year, with addresses in Belfast, Greenisland, Bangor, Newtownards and Ballywalter among those under investigation.
In March police seized three packages containing more than 8,000 cannabis plants with an estimated street value of £4.25m, the court heard.
International letters of request were sent from the PSNI to their Italian counterparts seeking an exchange of information.
At an earlier hearing, it was claimed that £15m worth of cannabis had been sent to Northern Ireland in a period stretching back more than a year.
Xin Chen is further charged with possessing and transferring criminal property, while Zhenchao Chen is also accused of cultivating cannabis and having Class B drugs with intent to supply.
Their lawyers argued that they should be released due to the slow progress in the case.
Barrister Joe Brolly described the Italian administrative system as "a quagmire".
He also rejected prosecution claims that the defendants could flee or interfere with the investigation.
Ruling on the joint applications, Lord Chief Justice Sir Declan Morgan pointed out that both men are allegedly linked to "a very sophisticated and highly successful, potentially, operation to import huge quantities of herbal cannabis into Northern Ireland".
He added: "The prosecution suggest that the methodology was that herbal cannabis was sent from Italy to Northern Ireland and that some 78 consignments worth several million pounds were successfully imported by the operation."
Sir Declan acknowledged the difficulties in a cross-border investigation with 16 people currently charged.
Denying bail to both men, he said: "The complexities of the investigation means there are clear concerns about interference."