Two Vietnamese men arrested following the discovery of a suspected cannabis factory in Markethill are allegedly “victims of trafficking”, a court has heard.
Rejecting a bail application, District Judge Eamon King remanded Vinh Cong Pham and Ty Van Le – both of no-fixed-abode – into custody to allow police to continue their investigation into the matter.
The men, both 32-years-old, appeared before Banbridge Magistrates’ Court, sitting at Newry Courthouse this morning (Thursday), where they confirmed their names and dates-of-birth with the assistance of a Vietnamese interpreter.
The list of charges were read out to the court. They are: cultivating cannabis, possessing a Class B drug, attempted possession of a Class B drug, dishonestly causing electricity to be diverted, being concerned in the supply of Class B drugs and dishonestly using electricity.
When asked if they understood the charges, the men replied, “yes, we do”.
A police constable confirmed he was aware of the facts of the case and he could connect the accused to the charges.
He then explained that police had been carrying out house-to-house searches in the area when they smelled the cannabis.
They then contacted the owner who gave them permission to force entry into the house through the back door. They found “quite a large and extensive” suspected cannabis factory, containing over 534 plants. The two defendants were located upstairs in the property. They had “obviously” been living in the property.
The constable stated that police were opposing bail as immigration “have an interest” in both parties. He explained that they have no-fixed-abode and are believed to be a flight risk, with no ties to the local area.
“We do believe they’re victims of trafficking but immigration are involved now and they’re taking action as well,” the police constable said.
He added that the defendants have been in Northern Ireland for about four months, with one having overstayed his visa and the other having his asylum status declined on the day of his arrest.
The defence then noted – agreed by the police constable – that the property in question is a disused bar, with the conditions inside being “uninhabitable by modern standards”.
The constable then confirmed that police have conducted labour exploitation questionnaires.
The defence solicitor continued, stating the defendants were “quite clearly trafficked”, arguing that remanding victims of trafficking into custody was “grossly unfair”.
The defence explained that as police had completed National Referral Mechanism (NRM) paperwork, it would take five days to come back and it would be decided by the Home Office that, if they believe there’s a chance they may be trafficked, they’ll be afforded protection.
The defence solicitor argued that the defendants could be bailed to Migrant Help if the Home Office deem them to be victims of trafficking.
“These gentlemen had not been allowed to leave the property for the three months they had been there. The conditions were horrendous at best. They’re not being paid and they clearly satisfy a number of the eleven indicators of trafficking,” he added.
The defence solicitor further stated that if the case goes to Crown Court, it could take a period of time, adding: “It wouldn’t be fair for these men to be in custody during that period of time.”
He further surmised that the charges may eventually be withdrawn.
District Judge King, on rejecting the bail application, remarked: “The case has been made on their behalf that they’re the victims of trafficking and that they weren’t here of their free will. If that is proved to be the case, it will be a defence to the criminal charges that both men face.
“The main concern of the police, if they are released from custody, is that they will disappear. The justification for that fear is they have no ties to this jurisdiction and the police have discovered false documentation which would tend to indicate that they have travelled from elsewhere to here.
“In those circumstances I feel this court has no choice but to remand both these gentlemen in custody for a short period of time to allow the police and their legal representative to explore the best way forward.”
Judge King remanded both defendants in custody, to appear before Armagh Magistrates’ Court on October 10.