Nine freed in cigarette haul investigation

Wed, Oct 28, 2009, 00:00

The nine men held in connection with a seizure of obver 120 million illegal cigarettes on a ship in Co Louth yesterday have been freed without charge.

The cigarettes, worth an estimated €50 million, were discovered aboard the MV Anne Scan  in Greenore, Co Louth yesterday.

It was the largest seizure of contraband cigarettes in the history of the EU.

The ship is a general cargo vessel some 80 metres in length which is German-owned but was chartered from the Philippines.

The men were arrested following a Revenue Customs Service operation supported by the Garda and other agencies. Gardaí confirmed this evening that the men have been released from custody. A file is being prepared for the Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP).

The nine men include seven Irish nationals aged between 19 and mid-40s, one Lithuanian in his 50s and one Ukrainian in his 40s.

They were held under Section 4 of the Criminal Justice Act 1984 at Garda stations in Cos Louth and Monaghan.

Customs and revenue officers expect it will be Friday before they have removed all the cargo from the MV Anne Scan and examined it. Five different brands of cigarettes have been identified amongst the haul - ‘Palace’, ‘Chelsea’, ‘Superking’, ‘L&B’ and ‘Regal.‘

The cigarettes are thought to have been produced in the Philippines. The vessel was kept under surveillance from when it left the Philippines on September 15th until it docked in Greenore early yesterday morning.

The ship was taken to Dublin Port this afternoon where the cigarettes were unloaded into warehouses.

Sources believe the shipment was organised, at great cost, by criminals operating on both sides of the Border but the possibility that part of it was destined for dissident republicans is also being investigated.

Minister for Finance Brian Lenihan today welcomed the seizure and said smuggling has a serious impact on the State's tax revenue.

"Had these cigarettes not been seized, they could have represented an estimated loss of €40 million of tax revenue to public services," he said. "This potential €40 million shortfall equates to the cost of employing over 700 teachers in our education system. Citizens should remember that the purchase of illegal contraband directly affects our public service."

Charlie Flanagan TD, Fine Gael's spokesman for justice, has called for a mandatory €10,000 fine for those caught dealing in illegal cigarettes.

"The Government must send a message to the middlemen who trade illegally in tobacco by imposing hefty fines. If this does not happen the incentive to import cigarettes illegally will remain."

A former commander at Scotland Yard today said smugglers may be targeting Ireland because of lenient penalties handed out by courts.

Speaking on RTÉ's Morning Ireland, John O'Connor said that cigarette smuggling was seen as a less serious crime than smuggling hard drugs, where sentences can be much harsher.

"Ireland has been seen to be a fairly attractive staging post simply because if you look historically at the penalties that have been imposed by Irish courts for people smuggling cigarettes, I think the average is a fine of €500," he said.

"If you look at the profits involved in smuggling drugs, they're probably greater but the consequences of getting caught are much harsher."

He added that there was a certain amount of public apathy towards the issue of tobacco smuggling and called for a coordinated approach to the problem.

"There are a lot of things that can be done in Ireland to tighten up the problem of tobacco smuggling. It's very difficult to get to the source and stop it but It's a global black economy that really needs to be tackled in a coordinated way."