Suspects in £20m cannabis plot get bail

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Two men allegedly linked to a plot to smuggle nearly £20 million worth of cannabis into Northern Ireland have been granted High Court bail.

A judge ruled that Wenjie He, 38, and Jaizhu Cai, 31, can be released from custody under strict conditions.

Both men are charged with importing and conspiracy to supply Class B drugs.

They also face counts of transferring criminal property and possessing cannabis with intent to supply.

The alleged offences are connected to a major investigation involving the PSNI, National Crime Agency and Italian Carbinieri.

Prosecutors claim massive amounts of drugs were trafficked from Italy to rented houses in Northern Ireland.

Up to 80 packages, each containing around 10 kilos of cannabis, were sent via a courier service between January 2014 and March 2015.

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.

Cai, of Dunleath Drive in Ballywalter, Co Down, and He, of no fixed abode in Newtownards, are accused of being involved in the operation at some level.

In court on Monday, defence lawyers argued that they should be released from custody due to the potential delay in the investigation and prosecution.

Richard McConkey, for Cai, argued that he has spent months behind bars, and that any trial was unlikely before the end of this year.

Granting bail, the judge ordered the accused to stay at addresses approved by police.

Prohibitions were also imposed on applying for a passport or contacting co-defendants.