When Irish gangster Paul Meehan was jailed three years ago for smuggling cigarettes and conspiracy to acquire drugs and guns, his conviction was hailed as a success for police in the UK and Northern Ireland.
Called “Wobbly Boots” for his dependence on crutches ever since he crashed a stolen car, Meehan, 39, had previous convictions in the Republic of Ireland for crimes including violent disorder and “assault causing serious harm”.
Also nicknamed Dr Coke by one Irish newspaper for fuelling the cocaine boom during the Celtic Tiger years, he played a key role in the organised gangs that have wreaked havoc in Dublin in recent years.
Meehan’s international criminal organisation extended as far as southern China, a Financial Times investigation has established. Although the detail was never revealed by the Police Service of Northern Ireland, one of the force’s biggest gun and drug seizures of recent years began as an investigation into Chinese counterfeit factories.
The FT has also learned a Hong Kong private investigator who assisted in the hunt for Meehan remains in a Chinese prison, after initial efforts by the PSNI to secure his release failed.
The plight of Danny Tsang Chi-fai, 53, highlights the dangerous work done in China by private investigators, many of them with UK links. Tsang, a 20-year veteran of the Royal Hong Kong Police force, entered the investigations industry shortly after the former UK colony reverted to Chinese sovereignty in 1997.
According to documents seen by the FT, the 2008 PSNI investigation was code-named “Eclat” and cracked a criminal enterprise that dealt in counterfeit cigarettes, weapons and narcotics. The PSNI was helped by Tsang, who is serving a 10-year prison sentence in China after an apparent mix-up with local police.
The China connection highlights the global reach of cigarette-smuggling rackets. Customs officials say one in seven cigarettes smoked in Ireland – and one in 10 in the UK – are illicit, costing the two countries ￠2.5bn in lost taxes in 2011. The EU estimates that the illegal tobacco trade costs the bloc ￠10bn a year.
The counterfeit cigarettes Meehan imported came from Fujian province in southern China. As Operation Eclat unfolded, Tsang was working for a Hong Kong investigation firm that took on assignments from multinationals such as Japan Tobacco International.
When Meehan visited southern China in 2007, JTI informed the PSNI, which set up Operation Eclat. “My father did many private investigations in China and Thailand,” Tsang’s son Pakko told the FT.
“He often worked undercover, approaching the bad guys as a buyer so he could find out where their counterfeit factories were. Sometimes he would take a bag with a hidden camera.”
For Operation Eclat, Tsang posed as the head of a Chinese counterfeit cigarette factory, while an undercover UK officer acted as middleman. The PSNI was thus able to fool Meehan, who thought he was dealing with a real counterfeit cigarette ring.
In 2008, Meehan and his associates were caught in a sting by UK, Irish and Dutch authorities, which seized more than 250 handguns, 2,000 rounds of ammunition, three hand grenades, 14kg of heroin and 5kg of cannabis.
At the time of his arrest, Meehan was carrying more than ￠146,000 in cash, which was intended to purchase counterfeit cigarettes. He later pleaded guilty to 10 counts including conspiracy to possess weapons and drugs and evade duty on imported cigarettes.
When the crown court in Northern Ireland handed Meehan a 21-year prison sentence in June 2010, Mr Justice Stephens found that he had “played a significant and integral role in dealing at the highest scale of organised criminals”.
Back in China, however, Operation Eclat had gone badly wrong for Tsang. Chinese police had seized a shipment of counterfeit cigarettes bound for Northern Ireland as part of Operation Eclat and arrested Tsang. “For a long time we didn’t know why my father had been arrested. He just disappeared,” said Pakko, who like his father joined the Hong Kong police force.
The PSNI initially tried to help Tsang, according to emails seen by the FT. Between January and July 2009, PSNI officers told JTI executives they had lobbied on his behalf. “[M]eetings have been arranged in London next Thurs[day] at the Chinese embassy and at the UK Home office,” one officer wrote. “We will again make the case for Danny and confirm to the Chinese that they can travel to the UK to interview Meehan. We hope that this will persuade the Chinese to again reconsider Danny’s detention.”
The PSNI told the FT this week: “Criminal proceedings as a result of Operation Eclat have concluded in Northern Ireland. The Police Service of Northern Ireland does not comment on named individuals.”
The Home Office declined to comment, saying that questions should be directed to the PSNI. The Chinese embassy in London did not respond to a request for comment.
In a statement to the FT, JTI confirmed that Tsang had been identified as someone who could help the PSNI on Operation Eclat.
“PSNI undertook to inform the Chinese authorities [about Operation Eclat]?.?.?.?and to secure Chinese approval,” JTI added. “We simply do not know what, if anything, transpired between the authorities of Northern Ireland and China that would have led to [Tsang’s] arrest.”
In December 2010, six months after Meehan’s conviction, the Zhangzhou Intermediate People’s Court in Fujian sentenced Tsang to 10 years in prison for offences related to counterfeit cigarettes. The Chinese court rejected his defence that he had been involved in a PSNI operation.
“Hong Kong and China are different,” Pakko said. “As a Hong Kong police officer, I have to prove what you did and you don’t have to say anything. China is not like that.
“In China, my father has to prove that he is innocent.”
Additional reporting by Jamie Smyth in Dublin
53岁的丹尼(Danny Tsang Chi-fai)身陷囹圄的故事，说明在中国从事私家侦探工作有多危险。许多私家侦探和英国有渊源。丹尼曾为香港皇家警察效力20年，1997年香港主权移交中国后才从事私人侦探工作。
2010年6月，北爱尔兰的刑事法庭判处米汗21年监禁，斯蒂芬斯法官(Mr Justice Stephens)裁定他“身处有组织犯罪团伙的最高层，在交易中发挥了重要而不可或缺的作用”。