Nine men, four of them ex-Royal Marines, walked free from Bristol Crown Court and the taxpayer was left facing a bill running into millions from operational and court costs.
Within hours of the collapse, the Crown Prosecution Service confirmed that it was dropping extradition proceedings against one of Britain's biggest suspected drug smugglers, Brian Charrington, from Spain, in connection with the case.
The trial yesterday had been the result of 12 months of careful planning and surveillance involving customs officers, police, army and Royal Navy personnel, which led to the seizure by British special forces of a ship on the high seas loaded with a pounds 14.5 million cannabis cargo.
The operation involved three British warships, one staying on station for a month, at least 30 commandos, and two RAF Nimrod aircraft. But despite the hardware involved, proceedings were halted by Crown Court Judge John Foley who censured the investigators handling the case for a "a catalogue of flawed proceedings, illegalities and incompetence at a number of levels".
The accused had been arrested after armed commandos from the Special Boat Squadron boarded the Maltese-registered motor vessel Simon de Danser 100 miles off the Portuguese coast.
The court had heard that the drugs vessel was shadowed by a Royal Navy warship, HMS York, before the boarding on May 5, 1997.
Customs were given permission to board by Maltese authorities - after approaches to Lino Vassalli, director of the Maltese Maritime Authority. But the required authority should have come from the Attorney General of Malta, Dr Anthony Borg-Barthet, and claims by Customs that they had made the relevant telephone calls turned out to be bogus.
And the British request for boarding permission said the vessel would be seized "off the coast of the UK". The judge said the boarding in fact occurred 900 miles from Britain.
After the hearing a Customs spokesman said they were "regretful and disappointed" that the trial was halted.
Before the court yesterday were David Malcolm Charrington, 45, of Powderham, Exeter; Timothy Paul Spink, 33, of Torquay, Devon; Charles John Thomas, 37, of Poole, Dorset; Nigel Spencer, 28, of Poole, Peter David Mercer, 28, of , Clevedon, North Somerset; Mark William Jones, 33, of Little Paddock, Luscombe Road, Paignton, Devon; Britons Anthony Dallara, 34, Martin John Wallsden, 42, and Frenchman Alain Coelier, 38, who all live in Spain.Reuse content