£6.5m people-smuggling case collapses

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The Independent Online

The trial of three accused people-smugglers collapsed yesterday when prosecutors admitted that key witnesses could no longer be traced. The defendants, who denied running a human-trafficking operation worth £5.2m from a Chinese restaurant, walked free after the jury was told that witnesses had disappeared and there was insufficient evidence to continue. The cost of the police investigation and trial is estimated to be £6.5m.

The trial of three accused people-smugglers collapsed yesterday when prosecutors admitted that key witnesses could no longer be traced. The defendants, who denied running a human-trafficking operation worth £5.2m from a Chinese restaurant, walked free after the jury was told that witnesses had disappeared and there was insufficient evidence to continue. The cost of the police investigation and trial is estimated to be £6.5m.

The Crown Prosecution Service denied the decision was related to evidence given to the jury in Swansea Crown Court that immigration to Britain could be six times higher than official figures.

Last week, Robert Owen, a Home Office official, said many migrants disappeared on arrival to Britain and he could not "guesstimate" the true number of foreign nationals in the UK. Mr Owen, seconded to the National Criminal Intelligence Service, said: "Accepted figures for people coming in are significantly higher than official figures."

A CPS spokesman said: "This case was brought ... on the basis of the evidence available. Following evidential difficulties which arose during the trial, it was decided this was no longer the case. Those are the only grounds on which these decisions are taken."

Prosecutors had claimed that Xing Cheng, 22, and Guo Chen, 36, were leaders of a smuggling ring run by "Snakehead" criminals from Mr Chen's Dragon Palace restaurant in Aberystwyth, west Wales.

The men, themselves asylum-seekers, were accused of transferring huge sums of money to China, via 26 bank accounts in Mr Cheng's name, with the help of a third man, 42-year-old Nural Miah. But Judge Michael Burr ordered them to be acquitted after he was told several illegal immigrants police found at the Dragon Palace had since disappeared.

Prosecutors had said the witnesses would testify that they had been smuggled into Britain by Snakehead gangs, but they admitted the disappearance of witnesses made their evidence inadmissible.

The three defendants had denied money-laundering and assisting illegal immigration. Defence barristers said the collapse of the trial had been inevitable because investigators had not properly examined the defendants' claim that they were sending money to China from Chinese who did not have bank accounts. George Benson QC, for Mr Chen, said: "It is regrettable that having been given full explanations during their interviews, the investigating authorities did little if nothing to examine their credibility. We had to wait for this case to be heard for those explanations to be fully tested. A great deal of public money has been wasted."

The cost of the defence, which included one report alone costing £250,000, will have to be met by taxpayers.