Ten men convicted of attempting to smuggle 12.5 tonnes of cannabis resin worth £36 million into Britain stashed in a rusty tugboat were jailed today.
The smugglers were caught after an international operation shadowed the boat as it travelled from Morocco to Southampton.
Six of the men were found guilty by a jury at Winchester Crown Court while four other gang members, including three Leicester men who were due to receive and distribute the drugs, pleaded guilty at earlier hearings.
All were charged with offences relating to the illegal importation of a class C controlled drug.
Boat captain Israeli Moshe Kedar, 81, was jailed for nine years, and gang leader Mordechai Hersh, 67, was jailed for eight years. Serbian crew member Dragan Stankovic, 54, was jailed for 10 years, Goram Otovic, 54, was jailed for nine years, Dusan Mileusnic, 49, was jailed for seven years and Negovan Jovanovic, 58, was jailed for seven years. These men were all found guilty by the jury.
Another gang leader Israeli Yehezkel Srebro, 57, was jailed for nine years after pleading guilty at an earlier hearing.
Three men from Leicester were among those locked up. They were internet entrepreneur Anjum Nazir, 39, jailed for eight years and brothers Mohinder Rai, 45, and Baljinder Rai, 41, who were jailed for eight years each. Two Ukrainians were acquitted.
The trial heard that an Israeli organised crime gang employed an eastern European crew to transport the drugs.
Officials monitored the boat during an unscheduled overnight stop off the coast of Larache in Morocco, a notorious den for smugglers.
Phone records and sea charts recovered during the investigation revealed the gang spent several hours waiting offshore overnight.
Once in Britain they linked up with a Leicester drug dealing cell who planned to distribute the drugs.
But undercover officers, who had been watching the gang as they prepared to offload the haul, swooped on the men at their hotels.
Investigators who boarded the Abbira at the American Wharf marina on the River Itchen spent five days recovering 419 bales of cannabis.
The carefully-packaged drugs had been stuffed into tanks designed to hold fresh water, foam for fire fighting and ballast.
The April 2008 cannabis seizure, enough to make some 36 million joints, was one of the largest ever.
It took officials six attempts to dispose of the huge quantity of drugs in a specialist incinerator.
The operation to catch the men was led by the Serious and Organised Crime agency (Soca) and involved Leicestershire Police, HM Revenue and Customs (HMRC) and the UK Border Agency.
Andy Sellers, Soca deputy director, said: "This operation was a massive success for international and national law enforcement co-operation.
"The quantity of drugs seized would have resulted in upwards of three and a half million street deals and would have funded a wide range of other criminal activity.
"Taking out both ends of the criminal operation means that not only have we disrupted a supply route into the UK, but also a distribution network that would most likely have stretched right across the UK."
Chris Pratt, of HMRC, said: "It took our officers nearly five days to recover and offload the 419 bales from these confined chambers.
"This was a huge amount of cannabis resin to discover on one vessel and an excellent result for all the organisations involved."
Detective Chief Inspector David Sandall, of Leicestershire Police, added: "Drugs are an international concern and to fight multi-national criminality you have to think, act and work outside the county boundaries.
"There's no doubt in my mind that this drugs haul was bound for the streets of Britain, some of which would inevitably have ended up in Leicester."