06:07, February 21 49 0 theguardian.com

2021-02-21 06:07:05
New doubt over fishermen’s cocaine smuggling convictions

Newly disclosed evidence has raised fresh concerns on the eve of an appeal court hearing of the case of two men convicted of smuggling a record haul of cocaine.

Daniel Payne and Jonathan Beere are members of the “Freshwater Five”, who were sentenced to a total of 104 yearsin prison a decade ago after £53m of cocaine was found floating in Freshwater bay off the Isle of Wight.

Their conviction has been beset by complaints about police behaviour after it emerged that two officers amended observation logs that were used as key evidence to link the fishermen to the haul.

In Monday’s episode of the Guardian’s Today in Focus five-part podcast investigation of the case, it is revealed the new evidence was not disclosed at the fishermen’s trial and, according to their families, helps support their claims of innocence.

The men’s defence team will argue that new radar data suggests the presence of what appears to be a surveillance plane over Freshwater bay just minutes after officers said they saw the men throw items into the sea, later described as the holdalls carrying the drugs, at 6.53pm.

At the original trial it was suggested a plane linked to the police operation could not have been in the area at the time because it only took off from Bournemouth at 7pm.

However, a document divulged by the police watchdog reveals a draft statement that suggests officers themselves had suggested at one point the plane may have taken off up to 20 minutes earlier, which the defence will argue gave it time to reach Freshwater bay just after the drugs were said to be thrown into the sea.

Documents lodged at the court of appeal say the statements are “further evidence of the jury being misled: The subsequent deletion of that [earlier] timing should only add to the court’s concerns about this case”.

The Today in Focus investigation analyses key discrepancies and enduring controversies in the case and asks whether the court will overturn the men’s convictions.

With access to relatives and some of the fishermen themselves, it also tracks the suffering and recrimination caused by the case among people in the tight-knit fishing industry on the Isle of Wight.

Officials at SOCA, or the National Crime Agency as it is now known, declined to be interviewed for the series.

Emily Bolton, director of Appeal, a charity law practice that fights miscarriages of justice and a solicitor for the Freshwater Five, said: “What is most troubling is the time it has taken for this evidence to be finally shown to us – why has it taken 10 years to be able to bring this evidence to the attention of a court?”

Central to the men’s case this week is radar data from a law enforcement vessel which the Crown failed to disclose at the trial. The data indicates that the fishermen’s trawler never got sufficiently close to the path travelled by a container ship from Brazil to permit the transfer of drugs as argued by the prosecution.

It also reveals that another small vessel sped across Freshwater Bay heading to the location where the cocaine was recovered the next day – more than an hour after the fishing boat had travelled up that stretch of coast. The existence of this alternative suspect vessel was also never disclosed at trial.

The men’s case will also refer to a judgment from another court of appeal case from 2015 involving the same SOCA commander as in the Freshwater operation. Police logs were also amended in that case to implicate a man who would later be convicted for drugs offences.

Quashing the conviction, the judgment of the other court of appeal case referred to Freshwater and in particular how two local police officers amended their original logs after meeting with the SOCA commander in a car park the following morning.

Commenting on the Freshwater policing operation, the judgment stated: “There is a sustainable basis for a court to conclude that [a SOCA officer] had taken steps to persuade two local officers to give false observation evidence that linked the fishing boat with the holdalls that were later discovered.”

The UK Border Agency has been approached for comment.

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