Man accused over £20m cannabis plot granted bail


A man allegedly linked to a plot to smuggle nearly £20 million worth of cannabis into Northern Ireland has been granted High Court bail.

A judge ruled that Zhenchao Chen can be released from custody after being told his family has been settled in Belfast for more than a decade.

The 34-year-old Chinese restaurant delivery driver face charges of importing and conspiracy to supply herbal cannabis.

Prosecutors claim he rented some houses used in an operation to traffic major quantities of drugs from Italy.

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

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 were 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.

Charges have been brought against 16 people for alleged roles in the racket.

They were arrested as part of a joint probe involving the PSNI, National Crime Agency and Italian Carbinieri.

Prosecution counsel argued against bail being granted to Chen, of Annadale Flats in Belfast.

Conor Maguire claimed: “This applicant is an integral part of a significant drugs operation.”

But defence barrister Joe Brolly rejected any allegation that his client played a high-ranking role.

“He had £300 in his bank account at the time he went into custody. He has no wealth,” Mr Brolly said.

With father-of-two Chen having lived in Northern Ireland since 2002, his lawyer insisted there was no risk he may flee.

Mr Brolly also emphasised the potential delay in the vast investigation.

“The bureaucratic system in Italy is a quagmire,” he claimed.

Granting bail, Judge Gordon Kerr QC ordered Chen to provide a £2,000 surety and report to police four times a week.

The judge also directed: “He is to have no contact with any other defendant.”