AN illegal immigrant caught tending a cannabis farm, “had the audacity” to claim he was a victim of modern slavery, a court was told.
Police, tipped off by suspicious neighbours, attended a mid-terrace two-bedroom property in Newcomen Street, Ferryhill, at 7.30am, on October 23, last year.
Durham Crown Court heard the only person present, Albion Zeimaj, was arrested before police recovered 73-semi-mature cannabis plants from a bedroom.
Jane Foley, prosecuting, said if grown to maturity the estimated sale value would have been between £20,000 and £60,000.
Zeimaj, 31, admitted he had been gardener to the crop for the previous three weeks.
He told police he came to the country illegally, having crossed the English Channel by speed boat from France at a cost of £9,000.
He said he owed his traffickers that money and so was working the debt off by tending the cannabis crop.
Miss Foley said two other men attended the property later that day and although arrested, there was insufficient evidence to charge them with anything.
She said Zeimaj subsequently claimed he was a victim of modern day slavery and a referral was made to the Home Office, but that claim was debunked when the contents of his phone were later examined, revealing photographs of him enjoying himself in pubs and restaurants in Durham, taken last September.
As a result, the defendant pleaded guilty to producing a class B drug, last month.
Robert Cowley, for Zeimaj, who he said has no previous convictions, told the court the timing of the photographs back up the defendant’s claim he had not long been in County Durham at the time of his arrest.
Mr Cowley said it was the loss of his chef’s job in his homeland that was behind his decision to try to come to the UK to find work.
Judge Ray Singh said the defendant chose to come to the UK illegally, “to work in the cannabis-growing industry” and so arrived in this country, “with his eyes open” as to what he would be doing.
But Judge Singh said he then, “had the audacity” to claim he was a modern slavery victim, when faced with prosecution.
“That was plainly a dishonest representation.”
Imposing a 25-month prison sentence, he told Zeimaj the would serve half, before facing likely deportation.