Money laundering accused weep throughout hearing

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A husband and wife accused of laundering money in an international drug smuggling plot wept in court as they were remanded into custody.

Standing side by side in the dock of Newtownards Magistrates’ Court on Saturday, 35-year-old university lecturer Yifan Xhao and his wife Gieo Huimin, 34, cried uncontrollably throughout the 20-minute hearing.

The couple, with an address at Longleat Court in Milton Keynes, are jointly charged on four offences including possessing criminal property, converting criminal property, namely cash, entering a criminal arrangement to acquire criminal property and cheating the public revenue, all alleged to have occurred on various dates between April 18 2013 and March 25 this year.

A detective constable objected to their release on bail, and alleged they had been involved in laundering more than £750,000 for an international crime gang who it is estimated, have successfully smuggled £15 million worth of super-strength skunk cannabis into Northern Ireland.

To date, nine other people accused of involvement in the organised crime gang have been charged with a range of offences including conspiracy to smuggle class B cannabis and money laundering.

The importation charges arise after officers from Organised Crime Branch recovered £800,000 of super-strength cannabis known as ‘skunk’ along with cash during searches in Belfast, Greenisland, Bangor, Newtownards and Ballywalter.

Eight others have also been held in Italy following raids on three cannabis factories by anti-Mafia officers in the Carabiniere in the Prato and Bologna areas.

The constable claimed police had seized documents which indicated a total of £760,000 had been put through the couples’ bank account with many lodgements coming from across the UK, and that bank slips showed they had a balance of £400,000.

While Zhao claimed the couple’s monies had come from his wage as a university lecturer and from lawful business ventures including the buying and selling of Body Shop products, the officer said police would dispute those claims and maintain they were “benefiting from this smuggling operation”.

Defence solicitor Denis Maloney submitted that the couple, who have two very young children, could be safely released if the bank accounts and assets were frozen and their passports surrendered, claiming they had made “proper tax returns” to HMRC.

District Judge Mark Hamill refused bail for Zhao and remanded him into custody to appear again on June 26 via videolink, and he told a weeping Huimin he would hear her bail application on Tuesday but that he wanted to have a “structured case” put before him by the PPS.