PARIS: A Briton accused of being one of Europe’s biggest drug traffickers was jailed for 22 years on Friday for smuggling over a ton of cocaine into France in suitcases stashed on an Air France flight.
The court said Robert Dawes, 46, would have to serve at least 15 years with no possibility of parole over the brazen 2013 drugs shipment from Venezuela to Paris.
Dawes, who had denied the charges, was arrested at his luxury villa on the Spanish Costa del Sol in 2015 following a lengthy investigation by authorities in Britain, France, Spain and South America.
“I continue to claim my innocence,” he said Friday morning in his final statement to the special non-jury court.
The case was tried by five judges who ordered Dawes and four accomplices — three Italians and one Briton — to pay a 30-million-euro ($34.2 million) fine.
“Far from a small-time fall guy, today we are judging men in the highest ranks of organized crime who supplied European networks,” prosecutor Isabelle Raynaud told the court during the week.
Hailing the verdict, the deputy director of Britain’s National Crime Agency, Matt Horne, describe Dawes as “one of the most significant organized criminals in Europe with a network that literally spanned the globe.”
“Dawes was prepared to use extreme levels of violence in order to further his reputation and take retribution against those who crossed him. Members or associates of his criminal group are known to have been involved in intimidation, shootings and murders,” Horne added in a statement.
The noose tightened on Dawes after Spanish police secured a video showing him bragging to a member of a Colombian drugs cartel about his ownership of the cocaine found stuffed in 30 suitcases registered to ghost travelers.
Spain extradited him to France shortly after his arrest.
Dawes had hoped to get the video dismissed on legal grounds, but a document submitted by his defense team in support of that claim turned out to be a forgery.
Dawes himself then surprised the court — and evidently his lawyers — by saying his claims in the video were “just a made-up story” intended to provoke the police into arresting him so that he could prove his innocence.
The court also passed jail terms ranging from five to 13 years on four accomplices: Britain’s Nathan Wheat, and Vincenzo Aprea, Carmine Russo and Marco Panetta of Italy.
The four were arrested after undercover officers tricked them into trying to transport some of the cocaine to Italy shortly after its arrival at Paris’s Charles de Gaulle airport in September 2013.
A sixth defendant, Britain’s Kane Price, was acquitted.
At the time of his arrest, Spanish police said Dawes “headed up the biggest criminal organization in Britain and Europe devoted to drug trafficking, money laundering and murder.”
He was suspected of buying large amounts of drugs from Italy’s ‘Ndrangheta mafia, which is thought to run much of Europe’s cocaine trade from Calabria.
His empire allegedly stretched from Portugal, France and Belgium to Turkey, the United Arab Emirates, Pakistan, Venezuela and Mexico.
Dawes maintained that he and his family made their money from a variety of businesses in Spain, including furniture and window manufacturing, management consulting and property investments.
The cocaine found on the Air France flight from Caracas had a street value of some 240 million euros ($275 million).
The discovery caused a stir in Venezuela where the interior minister admitted the suitcases had gone through security scanners that had clearly showed the presence of drugs.
Venezuelan police arrested 25 people, including members of the military and an Air France manager.