Customs drug operations criticised: Two men to appeal over convictions for smuggling based on information from former mercenary

CUSTOMS and Excise undercover drug operations are facing growing criticism following revelations in a court case that officers acted as agents provocateurs and used a mercenary as a paid informer in two investigations.

Two men serving six-year sentences for plotting to buy 100kg (220lb) of cannabis are to appeal following the acquittal of a Ghanaian businessman, Raymond Okudzeto, on charges of importing heroin worth pounds 40,000 into Britain. The chief prosecution witness against Mr Okudzeto was John Banks, a mercenary who recruited British soldiers for the Angolan civil war. Mr Banks, who admitted he was paid pounds 750 'expenses' for his information, was dishonourably discharged from the Parachute Regiment in 1969 and has convictions for theft, blackmail and deception. Mr Okudzeto was acquitted after his defence claimed Mr Banks supplemented his income by 'setting up innocent people for money'.

Two Brighton men convicted last year on information supplied by Mr Banks are now launching appeals. Both claim they were 'set up by Banks so he could claim a reward from Customs and Excise agents'.

James Collis, 44, and Martin Poole, 27, met Mr Banks in July 1990. He was accompanied by a man called 'Tony' - who they later discovered was Michael Stephenson, an undercover Customs agent. The meeting was arranged by a friend who owed money to Mr Banks, who later telephoned Collis and, according to his solicitor, threatened he would 'sort him out' if he did not buy a large quantity of cannabis from him for pounds 30,000. Collis said both men men telephoned him to put pressure on him to buy the drugs. Collis and Poole were arrested at a motorway services in possession of pounds 30,000 in October 1990. Both deny they intended to buy drugs and said they were afraid of Mr Banks.

David Buss, a solicitor acting for the two men, claims Mr Stephenson obstructed their attempts to subpoena Mr Banks to question him about his role in the operation. 'Poole and Collis are serving long prison sentences as a result of the activities of an informant whose identity was known but whose role has been improperly suppressed,' he said.

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