Farcical court scenes in drugs case

Dutch court moved after threats to trial of alleged British drug smuggler
Click to follow
The Independent Online
He was known as "Target One" by Interpol and is accused of running Europe's biggest drugs ring.

Yesterday, the latest chapter in the saga of Curtis Warren began as the trial of the 32-year-old Liverpudlian was dramatically moved out of a Dutch court to a secret location because of safety fears.

And in a second twist, the three trial judges halted the proceedings to consider whether to adjourn the case for a second time amid claims by the defence lawyers that much of the information obtained by British police was illegally obtained and is inadmissible.

Mr Warren is charged in connection with an alleged drug-smuggling plot to flood Britain with pounds 100m of heroin, cocaine, ecstasy and hashish.

At the last minute, the venue for the trial was altered yesterday.

A satellite link was hastily arranged between the secret make-shift court and the Central Court so that journalists could follow proceedings on a wide screen.

Bizarrely, as the trial waited to resume, the Dutch authorities screened a Rolling Stones concert for reporters to watch.

On trial alongside Mr Warren are 38-year-old Stephen Mee, also from Liverpool, and Stephen Whitehead, 34, from Oldham, Greater Manchester. They are said to be the key players in a European drugs ring operating on a vast scale.

Mr Warren's lawyer, Han Jahae, yesterday claimed that the cross-border police operation between Britain and the Netherlands had been "contaminated" because methods used in the United Kingdom were not recognised by the Dutch authorities.

UK Customs and police have denied that the information they passed on to the Netherlands came from an informant or from electronic bugging or a telephone company.

But the refusal of the authority to identify the source - a legitimate tactic in the UK - has triggered calls for a more detailed review of the evidence before the trial continues.

Yesterday's adjournment was a repeat of events two months ago when the trial was halted after Mr Warren's lawyer successfully argued that the evidence against his client may have been "contaminated".

The defence lawyer maintained that methods used by British investigators to gather information on the Liverpool businessman rendered the prosecution null and void.

Four years ago, Mr Warren and a partner, Brian Charrington, 37, from Middlesbrough, were the defendants when Britain's biggest criminal investigation collapsed over an alleged pounds 250m drugs deal.

Mr Warren and Mr Charrington, it was alleged, had set up a deal with the Colombian Cali cartel to import 900 kilos of high-grade cocaine concealed in ingots of scrap.

Unknown to the pair they were already under surveillance by Customs and in a subsequent operation the drugs were seized and Mr Warren and 10 other men were charged.

Customs officers maintained that the evidence against both Mr Warren and Mr Charrington was extremely strong. But officers from the North East Regional Crime Squad, claimed that Mr Charrington was a valued informant. Sir John Cope, the then minister responsible for Customs, was persuaded that this was the case following a meeting chaired by Sir Nicholas Lyell, the then Attorney General, whose parliamentary private secretary Tim Devlin lobbied on Mr Charrington's behalf despite the fact that he was not his constituent. Mr Devlin had visited Mr Charrington in prison.

Charges against Mr Charrington were dropped. The key surveillance evidence against Mr Warren, of his meeting with an alleged Cali cartel representative, Mario Halley, was ruled inadmissible. He and all but one member of the gang walked free.

After the case, Mr Warren set up in the Netherlands. But in October last year he was arrested by Dutch police near the Rotterdam Europort.

A raid on a ship in the dock led to the recovery of 800 kilos of Colombian cocaine, with a street value of pounds 75m, secreted in aluminium ingots. Follow- up raids brought the total value to pounds 100m and also led to the seizure of hand grenades, automatic weapons, and CS gas canisters.

One of the co-accused in the current case, Stephen Mee, from Liverpool, escaped from a prison van on the way to Manchester Crown Court in l993, but was sentenced in absentia to 22 years in jail on charges of smuggling cocaine from Colombia.