Criminals ran pounds 70m `Aladdin's cave'

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A SMALL high street bureau de change was the front for a pounds 70m money laundering operation, a court was told yesterday.

Knightsbridge Crown Court heard that the operation at the shop in Notting Hill, west London, hid profits from drug trafficking and burglary. The business was so successful that its owner became a millionaire.

Suitcases full of cash were brought hundreds of miles across Britain by couriers working for drug dealers and other criminals to be "washed" at what became an "Aladdin's cave" for the criminal fraternity.

Nigel Peters QC, for the prosecution, said that once converted into clean foreign currency, most of the money was secretly "exported" to Holland.

He claimed some of the money launderers became so greedy that even when they were aware they were being watched, they refused to pull out.

A number of people were eventually arrested, including two men picked up at Dover with pounds 250,000 in foreign exchange on them.

Mr Peters said: "It is not the sort of money one would take for a long weekend or indeed, as they initially said, to buy champagne for a family wedding."

Ussmam El-Kurd, the owner of the bureau de change, is on trial along with eight others. He denies 28 offences between June 1994 and November 1996 that include allegations that he conspired to remove the proceeds of drug trafficking and criminal conduct from the UK and conspired to convert them.

The charges also allege that he removed and attempted to remove such proceeds, helped others to retain the benefit of drug trafficking and criminal conduct, and failed to disclose knowledge or suspicion of money laundering.

The other defendants, who are variously jointly accused with Mr El-Kurd in some of the above offences, also deny all allegations against them.

Mr Peters told the court that, while catering for tourists who popped in to exchange a couple of hundred pounds, the bureau de change also looked after villains. "You will hear evidence where men ... came with suitcases full of sterling in pounds 5, pounds 10 and pounds 20 notes ... to convert dirty money to clean, to wash it into foreign exchange."

He said one defendant, Nicholas Krul, 53, of Chelsea, London, made 143 outbound trips from London to Amsterdam or Rotterdam in the two years, spending a few hours in Holland before returning to pick up another load of cash.

Mr Peters said Mr El-Kurd used Thomas Cook travel agents, Barclays Bank and the Arab Bank to provide him with the millions of pounds in foreign exchange he needed every month. He told the court that at one stage Barclays alone was providing the businessman with pounds 1.6m in overseas tender a month.

Another of the accused, Peter McGuinness from Dovecote in Liverpool, was watched on 26 occasions as he travelled from Liverpool to London with suitcases full of cash. Officers walked into the exchange to find him in possession of several thousand pounds of "dirty money".

Throughout the enterprise Mr El-Kurd allegedly took a large cut from the allegedly illicit turnover, "stuffing away" a total of pounds 750,000 in cash and pounds 250,000 worth of jewellery in three safety deposit boxes, Mr Peters added.

The trial continues today.