A Chinese man who was “a victim of modern day slavery” has been jailed for his part in running a cannabis factory in Malin.

Zi Yu Ye (46), of no fixed abode, appeared at Letterkenny Circuit Court this afternoon where he pleaded guilty to three charges in connection with the discovery of €1.6m worth of cannabis at a  “grow house” at Milbrook Joinery, Greenhill Road, Drumaville, Malin on October 10, 2012.

Yu Ye was charged with possession of a controlled drug (cannabis), possession of a controlled drug for the purpose of selling or supplying it to another, and the cultivation of the genus cannabis without a licence.

Two other Chinese nationals had previously pleaded guilty to charges in connection with the same incident, and are due to be sentenced next week.

The court was told Gardai had received confidential information about a potential “grow house” in the Malin area, and after identifying the premises obtained a warrant to search the former joinery.

Gda Jason Conroy from Buncrana Garda Station told the court they were given a key to the premises by owner Mr McLaughlin, who had rented out the building, but when they arrived the door had been boarded up from the inside and they had to force their way in.

Inside they found Yu Ye hiding behind an extractor fan. Gda Conroy said the large building, which was approximately 10,000 sq ft and had previously been split in two, had been converted to contain seven rooms for the cultivation of cannabis along with living quarters including beds, a shower, and a kitchen.

The rooms were used for growing baby plants, medium sized plants, and adult plants, as well as for drying harvested leaves, and the building had been rigged with lamps and a hydro-system for watering the plants. The ESB had also been by-passed.

A total of 18 kilos of dried herbal cannabis was seized by Gardai at the scene, with a value of €360,530.

In the other rooms, Gardai seized 536 baby plants with a potential value of €428,800, 567 medium plants with a potential value of €453,600, and mature plants with an actual value of €408,800.

Gda Conroy said it was the biggest operation of its kind he had encountered in Donegal, where he said there had been approximately five similar grow houses found.

Defence barrister Peter Nolan told the court his client had previously pleaded not guilty, but this was only because there had been “serious issues” with translation at previous hearings.

He said Yu Ye had been recruited to do carpentry at the building, such as putting up shelves and creating the rooms, and had been at the premises for nine days before been taken elsewhere, and was then brought back to Malin for a further ten days.

While there the men did not leave the warehouse and had their food and supplies brought to them.

Mr Nolan said his client, who also helped water the plants, had been promised €200 a day for his work, of which “he never saw a penny.” He added Yu Ye was not familiar with the geography of the area, and wasn’t aware where Malin was, or that he was evening Donegal for this afternoon’s sentencing hearing.

Mr Nolan asked Gda Conroy if they had ever found Yu Ye’s boss, whom he termed “Mr Big”. The Garda said they had not, and Judge John O’Hagan said people in Ye Ye’s position “usually have no knowledge of who they work for.”

Mr Nolan said people like Yu Ye were “vulnerable” and “unfortunate” and were “effectively modern day slaves.”

He said Yu Ye, who has no passport, had come to Ireland illegally on a lorry, via another lorry in England, after he lost his business and was in dire financial straits at home in China.

The barrister said he was married with a wife and two sons in China whom he hadn’t seen in three years, and didn’t even know if his parents were still alive.

He said Yu Ye was from a rural part of China, and was illiterate and naïve about the ways of the world.

Mr Nolan explained how he had worked on his parents’ farm until a swimming accident damaged his ears as a teenager. He explained how Yu Yi had the injury repaired by doctors at Castlerea Prison, allowing him to hear with both ears for the first time, for which he was “very, very grateful.”

The barrister added that Yu Yi, who has been in custody since his arrest in 2012, was very happy with how had been treated in the Irish prison system.

Judge O’Hagan said €1.6m in cannabis had been found in total, making it the biggest case of its kind in his legal career. He pointed out the people who set up such operations sought isolated areas, and said he was familiar how isolated the Drumaville area of Malin was.

He said people like those who Yu Ye worked for preyed on people in financially dire situations and who had come to Ireland illegally. Judge O’Hagan added, however, that he believed Yu Ye knew what he was doing was illegal which was why he hid when the Gardai had raided the building.

Judge O’Hagan said while ideally he would like to deport Yu Ye back to China and his family, he did not have the power to do so. He added he must “make an example” and could not let the offences go unpunished.

He jailed Yu Ye four years for the cultivation of cannabis, and a further four years for possession with intent to supply, with both sentences to run concurrently, and back-dated the sentence to 2012 as Yu Ye had been in jail since he was arrested. Judge O’Hagan added had the defendant pleaded not guilty and had subsequently been found guilty by a jury, the sentence would have been twice as long.

For more on this story see next week’s Inish Times.

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