Three South Yorkshire men who were jailed over a plot to smuggle five tonnes of cocaine from Columbia were targeted by spies, a court heard.
Russell Knaggs, Phillip Hadley and Robert Rich were jailed for a total of 52 years in 2012 over their involvement in the conspiracy.
But the trio say their convictions were based on covert evidence which was illegally obtained, a hearing at the Court of Appeal heard.
Knaggs, aged 41, of Marsh Gate, Conisbrough; Hadley, aged 55, of New Hill, Conisbrough; and Rich, aged 43, of Burton Road, Barnsley, have already been given the green light to appeal. In the latest preliminary hearing, Lady Justice Rafferty, Mr Justice Sweeney and Mr Justice Dingemans heard their cases revolve around allegations of serious corruption.
Barrister Tim Owen QC said independent experts had raised questions over whether vital evidence against the men had come from illegal ‘live monitoring’ of their communications from the USA.
He said: “The case that was being put was that this prosecution was tainted by corruption, illegality and so on, in fundamental ways in relation to the gathering and presentation of evidence, whose provenance has then been effectively covered up.”
At the preliminary hearing, lawyers for the three men and the prosecution continued to wrangle over disclosure of evidence.
Mr Owen told the judges that US authorities were adamant evidence handed over was not the result of ‘live monitoring’ of a Yahoo email account.
However, expert evidence ‘called into question, in the case of the Yahoo evidence, whether this evidence had been produced as a result of continuous monitoring, in an unlawful sense, in the US,’ he said.
He said there were also difficulties over evidence said to have come from Holland, with Knaggs in particular concerned that it might actually be the result of communications intercepted in Britain.
In their trial, the prosecution case was that Knaggs, while serving a sentence in Lowdham Grange Prison, in Nottinghamshire, conspired with others to organise a huge shipment of drugs. At the time, the conspiracy was described by detectives as ‘like a Hollywood movie’.
Hadley was alleged to have provided money and arranged contacts, travelling to Colombia, while Rich met with external contacts, attended meetings and went on three expeditions abroad.
No drugs were actually imported and the three men have always denied any wrongdoing.
Last year, three judges ruled their appeal cases ‘arguable’ and granted them permission to challenge the Birmingham Crown Court jury’s guilty verdicts on charges of conspiracy to import cocaine.
Knaggs is serving a 20-year term, Hadley, 18 years, and Rich, 14 years.
No date has yet been set for the full appeal hearing.