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Police in Belgium and Portugal dismantle organised crime gang behind sham marriage conspiracy

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sham marriage conspiracy

Law enforcement agencies in Belgium and Portugal have broken up an organised criminal gang that paid mostly Portuguese women to enter into sham marriages with Pakistani men.

In an operation supported by Europol and Eurojust, investigators today arrested 17 suspects in Belgium and a further three in Portugal in a series of coordinated raids.

The gang is said to have paid the women thousands of euros to marry the men, who were looking to illegally secure the right to live and work in the EU.

After being married in Portugal, the couples would travel to Belgium, where the wives would be employed by suspected bogus Belgian firms.

The gang would then arrange for the husbands to buy shares in the companies their sham wives worked for, allowing them the right to remain in the EU and apply for residency.

After doing so, the Pakistani men were then able to apply for social security benefits.

Once each sham marriage had been established, the women would typically return to Portugal after being paid, returning to Belgium occasionally as and when required to complete any necessary immigration or police checks.

Belgian authorities were first alerted to the scam back in 2015 when local officials became aware of an unusual rise in the number of mixed marriage certificates being issued in Ypres, a city in the Flemish province of West Flanders.

A Joint Investigation Team (JIT) was established due to the international nature of the conspiracy, which culminated in today’s raids in Ypres and Brussels in Belgium, as well as in Lisbon and Algarve in Portugal.

Officers from each country took part in the day of action in both Portugal and Belgium.

Raids on 18 properties in Belgium resulted in the discovery of 43 irregular migrants, who were mostly of Pakistani origin, as well as the seizure of counterfeit documents and mobile devices.

Meanwhile in Portugal, police detained three suspects during searches of nine properties, during which laptops, desktops and other mobile devices were confiscated.

In a statement, Europe’s law enforcement agency said: “Europol supported the joint operation on-the-spot.

“Analysts were deployed to Belgium and Portugal for real-time information cross-checks and mobile phone forensics.

“This coordinated international cooperation proved very useful in the dismantling of this criminal network.”

In August last year, a similar Europol-backed operation resulted in the arrest in Romania and Poland of five members of a gang suspected of smuggling Indian and Nepali nationals into the EU through sham marriages.

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Dread Pirate Roberts 2.0 jailed for running second iteration of Silk Road dark web marketplace

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Dread Pirate Roberts 2.0 jailed for running second iteration of Silk Road

A jobless university drop-out from the UK city of Liverpool has been jailed after being convicted of running the Silk Road 2.0 dark web marketplace while collecting indecent images of children.

Liverpool Crown Court heard that Thomas White, 24, helped run the original Silk Road marketplace until it was closed down by FBI investigators in 2013.

Within a month of its shutdown, White had launched Silk Road 2.0, which like its predecessor was used by vendors to offer illicit items including drugs, weapons, cyber crime tools and stolen credit card details on the dark web.

White, who abandoned his accounting degree at Liverpool John Moores University after just one term, rented a £1,700 ($2,225)-a-month apartment on the waterfront in Liverpool city centre at the time of his arrest, despite ostensibly being unemployed.

While investigators from the UK’s National Crime Agency (NCA) said they could not be sure how much money White made while operating Silk Road 2.0, it is estimated that illegal goods worth some $96 million were sold on the platform, on which he would take a commission of between 1% and 5%.

During a raid on White’s apartment, police discovered a laptop computer under his bed, which was found to contain 464 indecent images of children in the most serious category.

It later emerged that White had discussed setting up a hidden website on which to publish child abuse material during an online chat with a Silk Road 2.0 administrator.

Like Ross Ulbricht, who was jailed for life with no parole for running the original Silk Road marketplace in 2015, White used the online alias Dread Pirate Roberts, a reference to a fictional character in the novel the Princess Bride by William Goldman.

White was sentenced to more than five years behind bars.

Speaking after he was jailed, Ian Glover from the NCA said: “White was a well-regarded member of the original Silk Road hierarchy.

“He used this to his advantage when the site was closed down.

“We believe he profited significantly from his crimes which will now be subject to a proceeds of crime investigation.”

Separately, one of Britain’s most senior cyber detectives has warned that Europeans gangs are targeting autistic gamers in the hope of turning them into the next generation of hackers.

Peter Goodman, National Police Chiefs’ Council (NPCC) lead for cyber crime, told the Press Association that more than eight out of 10 (82%) of young people being enlisted by online criminals develop skills while gaming, with many of those targeted on the autistic spectrum.

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Customs authorities in China seize record 7.5 tonnes of ivory as wildlife crime crackdown continues

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customs authorities in China seize record 7.5 tonnes of ivory

The Chinese government yesterday announced that customs officers had seized nearly 7.5 tonnes of ivory in one of the largest such discoveries in recent years.

According to China’s customs administration, which is currently conducting a crackdown on wildlife-related crime, the elephant tusks were confiscated as a result of an operation targeting an international organised crime gang that had been involved in the illicit ivory trade for a number of years

Investigators are reported to have arrested 26 suspected members of the smuggling network behind the conspiracy after the ivory was found stored in a number of boxes that were being stored in a discussed factory in a remote town in the eastern province of Anhui last month.

Speaking at a news conference yesterday, officials said the seizure was made up of 2,748 elephant tusks.

The ivory is said to have been trafficked into the country from Africa in containers labelled as carrying wood.

Addressing reporters, Deputy Director General of China Customs Hu Wei said his officers have investigated 182 cases of wildlife trafficking so far this year.

He added that these operations resulted in the disruption of 27 organised criminal networks, the arrest of 171 suspected wildlife traffickers, as well as the seizure of more than 500 tonnes of smuggled illicit wildlife products, including nearly 8.5 tonnes of ivory.

Commending the Chinese government on the seizure, TRAFFIC, and NGO that monitors wildlife crime across the globe, said in a statement: “[We congratulate] Customs on their successful enforcement actions, which send a firm signal that trafficking of endangered species will not be tolerated.

“TRAFFIC also encourages the authorities to ensure full and thorough investigations are carried out and offers its assistance in efforts to clampdown on the persistent trafficking of ivory and other endangered species, and in the longer-term goal of changing consumer behaviour and reducing the demand for illegal wildlife products.”

China, which is the largest importer of elephant tusks on the planet, banned the sale of ivory in 2017.

As in some other Asian countries, ivory remains popular in China, where it is used in traditional medicines and is seen as a status symbol.

Back in February, a Chinese woman nicknamed the “Ivory Queen” was sentenced to 15 years behind bars in Tanzania after she was convicted of smuggling hundreds of elephant tusks to her country of birth.

Yang Fenglan, then aged 69, is said to have been responsible for the trafficking of tusks from as many as 400 elephants worth an estimated $2.5 million, in what was described at the time as one of the largest ivory smuggling operations ever discovered in Africa.

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Malaysia Airlines cabin crew member jailed for smuggling 2.5kgs of high-purity heroin into Australia

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Malaysia Airlines cabin crew member jailed

A flight attendant who worked for Malaysia Airlines has been jailed for more than five years after being caught attempting to smuggle packages of heroin into Australia.

In what a judge described as a “clumsily executed” operation, Fariq Aqbal Omar boarded a flight from Kuala Lumpur to Melbourne in May last year while carrying 2.5kgs of high-purity heroin.

The drugs were estimated to have a street value of more than A$3 million ($2.2 million).

After the flight on which he was travelling landed in Melbourne, large bulges visible underneath Omar’s clothing attracted the attention of customs officers.

Observing the 34-year-old Malaysian national using security cameras, border guards watched him visit a bathroom after alighting from his flight.

While using the facilities, he decanted the 10 blocks of pure heroin that had been stuffed inside his trouser pockets and underneath his vest into a suitcase, before exiting the airport terminal and boarding a transfer bus with other cabin crew members.

All of the flight attendants were then asked to return to the terminal building with their luggage to be searched, at which point Omar attempted to remove the drugs from his suitcase and return them to his pockets.

When investigators found the packages, Omar told them he believed they contained illegal tobacco, but later pleaded guilty to importing a commercial quantity of a border-controlled drug, claiming he was paid just A$500 to smuggle the heroin into Australia by a former colleague and another man.

Jailing Omar for five years and six months, Judge Wendy Wilmoth said it was incomprehensible that he had been persuaded to participate in the poorly thought-through smuggling attempt for such a small sum of money.

“Your actions have resulted in a very significant fall for you,” Australian broadcaster ABC News quotes Wilmoth as saying.

“This is something you should have considered before the importation.”

Omar will be eligible for parole after serving three years behind bars.

His lawyer, Thomas Mathew, told the New Straits Times: “Due to his limited involvement in the syndicate and minimum knowledge of its operations, our client’s role was at the very lowest of the range of the offences of this kind.

“Given his impeccable previous character, lack of prior offences in any country and the increased hardship that his imprisonment would involve due to the hardship his family are going through, the defence has sought the lowest sentence possible in the circumstances.”

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