€500 fine for €500,000 Rhino horn dealers

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TWO Limerick brothers have been fined €500 each after they were caught illegally attempting to import rhino horns worth almost €500,000 through Shannon Airport three years ago.
Jeremiah O’Brien and (33) and Michael O’Brien (28) were stopped in Shannon Airport on January 13 (2010) due to their demeanor and the size of their luggage. Ennis District Court heard on Friday that customs officers seized eight rhino horns from the brothers who had returned from Faro, Portugal.
Jeremiah O’Brien, with an address at 22 Roche’s Road, Rathkeale, Limerick, pleaded guilty to the illegal importation of four rhino horns valued at €231,760.
His brother, Michael O’Brien, also with an address at 22 Roche’s Road, Rathkeale, Limerick, pleaded guilty to the illegal importation of four rhino horns valued at €260,400.
Denis Twohig of the Revenue Commissioner’s Investigations and Prosecutions Unit told the court that it is an offence to import rhino horns without license.
Evidence of valuation was given by George Mealy of Mealy’s Fine Art Ltd. Mr Mealy, a Castlecomer- based valuer and auctioneer, told the court that at the time the brothers were stopped rhino horn was valued at €20,000 a kilo. He said the same quantity is now worth €60,000. Mr Mealy said, “It’s worth more than gold at the moment per ounce.”
Judge Patrick Durcan accepted jurisdiction on the basis that the offence was germane to the breach of the regulations and not the value of the horns.
Defence solicitor John Cussen told the court that the horns were antique, dating from the 1960s, and not from a freshly killed rhino.
He told the court that the trade in rhino horn is fuelled by a “superstition in the Far East” that rhino horn is an “aphrodisiac that enhances sexual performance”.
He said the brothers acquired the horns from a Portuguese antique dealer named Hernandez. He said Mr Hernandez had entrusted the horns to the O’Briens who were to mount them on a board in Rathkeale before returning with them to Portugal.
Mr Cussen said the brothers are antique dealers who travel frequently throughout Europe. He said their circumstances are not good and that their families live in caravan parks in France and Germany. They have no previous convictions.
Mr Cussen said the brothers wished to apologise to the court. The brothers faced a maximum fine of €1,250 and/or 12 months in prison.
Judge Patrick Durcan said, “In my relatively short time as a judge, this is one of the most interesting and intriguing cases I’ve had to deal with it.”
State solicitor Martin Linnane said, “I’ve never come across a case like this before.”
Judge Durcan said he was satisfied the horns were antique. He said the brothers had made no efforts to conceal the horns and that their actions had not in any way harmed a worldwide campaign aimed at protecting rhinos from poaching.
Noting their guilty pleas and good record, Judge Durcan fined each man €500 with three months to pay.

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A native of Ennis, Ronan Judge completed his Journalism and Communications Diploma course at Griffith College. The Clare People is his first newspaper appointment. Contact Ronan on rjudge@clarepeople.ie