By Ruaidhrí Giblin
A Co Louth man, wanted in the UK for his alleged role in the smuggling of cigarettes and tobacco by an “organised crime gang”, is expected to challenge his extradition to the UK on a legal point related to Brexit.
Stephen Watters (50), with an address at Kilcurry, Dundalk, Co Louth, is wanted in the UK for alleged conspiracy to fraudulently evade excise duty and for allegedly entering into an arrangement to facilitate the acquisition, use or control of criminal property.
Mr Watters was arrested on foot of a European Arrest Warrant earlier this year and High Court extradition proceedings are at an early stage.
Lawyers for Mr Watters asked Ms Justice Aileen Donnelly today for more time to file points of objection to his proposed surrender. Carol Doherty BL, for Mr Watters, indicated that her client’s case would raise a legal point related to Brexit.
Ms Justice Donnelly remanded Mr Watters on continuing bail until October 8 with liberty to apply “if there was an early resolution” on the Brexit matter before that date.
The European Arrest Warrant issued in respect of Mr Watters states that the case concerns an “organised crime gang” operating in the north west of England and the Republic of Ireland between January 1, 2014 and September 4, 2015.
The gang were allegedly involved in the illegal importation and distribution of “non UK duty paid tobacco products” and the “laundering of monies earned from that fraud,” the warrant states.
Seizures in excess of 17 million cigarettes and 1.5 tonnes of hand rolling tobacco have been made which can be attributed to this gang, the warrant states, equating to approximately £3 million of excise duty evaded.
Charges were initiated in respect of seven individuals including Mr Watters. All seven were requisitioned to appear before Liverpool and Knowsley Magisrates Court. Six attended and were sent to Liverpool Crown Court but Mr Watters did not attend and a warrant was issued for his arrest.
According to the warrant, evidence against the gang includes a “significant amount” of audio recorded from a “covert monitoring post”.
Mr Watters is alleged to have been the “principal occupant” of a premises where conversations were recorded. “The occupants of that property were recorded discussing their roles in the organisation, the importation of tobacco and the arrangements for dealing with the proceeds of that criminal activity.”
The warrant states that there was a significant seizure of non duty paid tobacco products at Felixtowe on September 8, 2014 and a number of recorded discussions referred to that seizure and the arrangements around it.
A further seizure of tobacco took place at Dublin Port on January 20, 2015. The shipment was manifested to Belfast and was ultimately destined for the UK mainland. The arrangements for, and the events surrounding, that seizure were specifically referred to by the gang in recorded conversations and can also be linked to the gang through other evidence, the warrant states.
The recorded conversations included discussions on arrangements for laundering the proceeds of this and other criminal activity. It is alleged that Mr Watters is known by an alias John Sleaty who is a director of a company based in the Republic of Ireland called Sleaty Distribution Ltd, the warrant states.
If convicted, Mr Watters is facing a maximum sentence of 14 years imprisonment, the warrant states.