Hundreds convicted of money laundering may be released

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The Independent Online

Hundreds of criminals accused of money laundering or handling stolen goods could be freed from prison after judges upheld the appeals of four men accused of a £171m drugs conspiracy.

Hundreds of criminals accused of money laundering or handling stolen goods could be freed from prison after judges upheld the appeals of four men accused of a £171m drugs conspiracy.

The ruling yesterday is expected to have wider implications for similar conspiracy cases in which the Crown has failed to show that the defendant knew money or a stolen item was a proceed of a crime.

Counsel for the Crown Prosecution Service said the Court of Appeal's judgment meant the prosecution of many current cases might have to be reconsidered.

Liaquat Ali, Akhtar Hussain and Moshan Khan were convicted at Leeds Crown Court in June 2003 of conspiracy to conceal, disguise or remove from the jurisdiction £170m proceeds of drug trafficking. The money was alleged to have been laundered through Watan Travel, a legitimate travel agency and money transfer business with shops in Bradford and Birmingham.

Ali and Hussain were each jailed for 12 years. Khan received eight years. Shahid Bhatti was sentenced to six years at the same court last October for a similar conspiracy relating to money laundering.

But yesterday a panel of three judges, headed by Lord Justice Hooper, quashed all the men's convictions, ruling that prosecutors must prove that alleged plotters knew, and did not just suspect, that the cash was the proceeds of crime.

"The money must be proved to have been the proceeds of drug trafficking or other criminal conduct," said Lord Justice Hooper, sitting with Mr Justice Tugendhat and Sir Douglas Brown. Actual knowledge, at the time of the alleged conspiracy, of where the money came from had to be established. Martin Bethel QC, counsel for the Crown, told the judges their decision would have a "wide knock-on effect" on other conspiracy cases, including handling stolen property. It might also result in a large number of appeals by people convicted in the past on the basis of reasonable suspicion.

The judges said the case was of such public importance that they would grant permission for the Crown to seek leave to appeal to the House of Lords. The judges also ordered that, in the event of the Crown losing any appeal to the law lords, at least three of the men should face retrial on conspiracy charges.

Conditions were set for the defendants' release on bail. All four men denied knowing or suspecting that some of the money they handled came from crime.

The question of whether Shahid Bhatti should face a retrial has yet to be decided.