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Jail for man who had "significant role" in drug factory

A Belfast man has been jailed for playing a "significant role'' in the first underground drug factory uncovered by police in Northern Ireland.

Mark Cavanagh (40), of India Street, was given a five year and seven month prison sentence after he pleaded guilty to conspiracy to produce cannabis, conspiracy to possess the drug with intent to supply, possession the drug with intent to supply, fraudulent evasion on imported goods and converting or concealing criminal property.

The offences were committed between July 1 2012 and May 22 2013 following a 12 month surveillance operation by the PSNI's Organised Crime Branch.

Judge Brian Sherrard said Cavanagh was part of a "criminal organisation or venture'' and stood to lose out on "his financial outlay'' in the drug growing operation.

Police believed Cavanagh played a "significant role''. Prosecutors said PSNI officers swooped on a purpose-built subterranean cannabis cultivating complex secretly recording suspects inside the shed talking about the drugs operation.

Downpatrick Crown Court, sitting in Belfast, heard police surveillance teams had observed two cars driving in convoy along the Derryneill Road at Ballyward, Castlewellan, on May 21, 2013.

One of the men on board was Mark Cavanagh. Surveillance footage showed Cavanagh at the scene and there were audio recordings of him "in the bowels'' of the shed. Police searched the premises and found a "sophisticated and purpose built underground cannabis factory which was unique to Northern Ireland''.

The judge ordered the defendant to serve half his sentence in custody and the remainder on supervised licence following his release from prison.

One of the main aggravating features of the case, added the judge, was that Cavanagh had only been out of prison 18 months for a robbery conviction when he became involved "in these serious offences''.

Judge Sherrard told Cavanagh, who was assessed as being a high risk of re-offending in the future: "You should be in no doubt about the views of parliament and society and accordingly, the attitude of the court to these drug offences. At the time of the these offences you were effectively on licence for the robbery conviction.''

The judge also ordered the destruction of all drugs seized and associated paraphernalia found. He also granted the destruction of 894 grammes of herbal cannabis Cavanagh had ordered to be sent through the post to an address on Belfast's Lisburn Road.

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