ENCROCHAT: Op Venetic cases being sentenced 'outside guidelines' said prosecutor during court break
EXCLUSIVE: COURTS are sentencing Encrochat cases "outside of guidelines" a prosecutor suggested outside of a hearing after a defendant who used the encrypted phone system to sell large amounts of cocaine across Merseyside and Cheshire was sentenced to 15 years in prison.
Stephen Christian, 43, (pictured above) received a 20-year sentence from Judge Garrett Byrne at Liverpool Crown Court this month, after he admitted the offence, which involved deals of up to 12KGs a time. However, the judge knocked five years off because he said it had been reasonable for him to wait until the outcome of an appeal in another Encrochat case before entering his plea.
Christian, who had the Encrochat user name "Tribal Quest", was charged under Operation Venetic, which involved local police forces, but is being coordinated from above by the National Crime Agency (NCA).
It was launched after last April Dutch and French investigators broke through the encryption of the supposedly secure Encrochat encrypted phone communication platform which was being used by around 50,000 people worldwide, including about 9,000 in the UK.
They allowed police forces across Europe, including in the UK, access to previously sent and new "real time" messaging between suspected organised crime groups. It led to hundreds of raids, arrests and seizures of drugs, cash and firearms across the UK in a series of unconnected operations.
Encrochat shut itself down when it discovered the hack in June.
The NCA said last week it has led to more than 1,500 arrests, but the total number of charges was not released.
A journalist was watching Christian's sentence via an online remote link, brought in due to coronavirus restrictions, and stayed connected to wait for another drugs case to begin. The prosecutor in the case began talking to the court clerk while the court was not in session.
Referring to the hefty sentence handed to Christian, he said to the clerk: "The courts are going to go outside the (sentencing) guidelines with these (Operation Venetic) cases."
It was then that the clerk mentioned that a member of the media was still listening and hit the mute button, so it is not known what, if anything was said after this."
Essex News and Investigations asked the CPS to comment on what was said and asked if courts had been advised to impose stricter sentences on Operation Venetic cases, and if so, which Government body had asked for this to be implemented.
The CPS did not issue an official response, but a spokesman said the prosecutor in question had clarified that it was merely his personal view that judges appeared to be issuing longer sentences in Operation
Venetic cases, because many of the prosecutions involved large quantities of drugs, which was a reason for imposing a longer sentence.
The spokesman added that there was no conspiracy for Operation Venetic defendants to get stricter sentences than if they had been charged with the same offences under a standard operation.
We asked for clarification on why giving someone a longer sentence because it involved a larger than usual amount of drugs could be considered "outside of guidelines," asking if there were not such guidelines in place to lengthen a sentence due to the quantity of drugs involved, and got no further response.
The court heard Christian had a lavish lifestyle brought about by peddling huge amounts of cocaine to customers and used an EncroChat system to communicate with customers and to negotiate prices from suppliers for substantial amounts of cocaine.
On July 1, last year, he was arrested and his two homes in Roscommon Way, Widnes, and another on Roseheath Drive, Halewood, Merseyside, were searched.
Police seized designer clothing, shoes and a Rolex watch, as well as almost £3,000 in cash and eight mobile phones.
The court heard the offending was from May to July last year and there was 12kg of cocaine involved in the conspiracy.
Sentencing, Judge Byrne said: "I will not lecture you on the damage caused by cocaine. "You ran a bespoke operation as your own commodity broker." He said that Christian was a run below the people who imported the drugs and communicated with them and customers via Encrochat. He added: "You used encrypted Encrochat phones and the use of these sophisticated devices is an aggravating feature as it was an attempt to conceal evidence as that is exactly what the use of these devices is for,. "You were one step away from those importing the drugs and your lifestyle was somewhat lavish." "You clearly played a lead role in organising the purchase and sale of drugs and were close to the source." After the sentence, Detective Chief Inspector Mike Evans, from Cheshire Police's Serious and Organised Crime Unit, said: “Christian was a well-established organised criminal who supplied multi-kilograms of class A drugs which he profited from and led to him living a lavish lifestyle. "He used this service to speak openly about his criminality believing it to be safe and secure. "It means the evidence was so strong that he had no choice but to admit to his involvement in the conspiracy."