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UP IN SMOKE Family's plea as brain-damaged Tipp man caught with six million cigarettes faces French jail

'He could have a stroke when he’s there. He went out there fine and healthy. He was eight-and-a-half stone by the time he came back'

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The family of an Irish truck driver set to be extradited to France to serve a sentence after being caught with six million cigarettes there a decade ago say he is innocent and will struggle to survive in prison.

Paul Barrett, (50), from Fethard in Co. Tipperary, was arrested in France in March 2010 driving a truck carrying five tonnes of smuggled cigarettes.

He was released and allowed return home after two days of questioning but was arrested again when he returned to France to collect the truck for his employers a week later.

He spent a number of months in prison before being released while investigations continued.

He returned to Ireland but in 2014 a French court convicted him in his absence of smuggling prohibited or highly taxed goods in an organised gang and other related offences.

Paul's family say they went to a Government TD for advice ahead of the retrial and he advised them that Paul shouldn't return to France and the situation would end up being resolved.

He was sentenced to two years in prison minus the time he already spent behind bars in 2010.

In December the High Court ruled that Paul is to be extradited to France where he will have the right to a retrial or appeal.

However, he will have be kept in prison before his retrial and could effectively have served the majority of his sentence by the time the retrial take place.

Paul suffered a serious brain injury in a workplace accident in 2016 and his sister Kim fears he will struggle to survive in a French prison.

"As it stands Paul isn't mentally able for that now," she said.

"Our concern is with the brain injury he has, the stress this could have on him. He could have a stroke when he's there.

"He fell in the cell the last time he was there in 2010. He was between 40 minutes and an hour trying to get out of the cell.

"It was from sheer dehydration and malnutrition. He went out there fine and healthy. He was eight-and-a-half stone by the time he came back."

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She said Paul has always maintained his innocence and was completely unaware the cigarettes had been loaded onto his truck.

"When you go into a warehouse on the continent you don't get out of the lorry. You pass over the paperwork and they load your lorry and off you go."

Paul was working for Fee Brothers haulage company based out of Clonmel at time and the owners of that company, Shane and Dominick Fee, were also tried in France in relation to the haul but acquitted on appeal.

Kim said Paul, who worked as a truck driver for most of his adult life, struggled during his first time in prison.

"He was detained in a prison cell for up to 22 hours a day. When he was let out of the prison cell it was totally overcrowded.

"The French prison is not like a cushy Irish prison. You have to pay for all your provisions even drinking water. You do get your breakfast, lunch and dinner but you wouldn't feed it to a dog here."

She said the incident has also had an huge toll on Paul's wider family.

"My father had two very serious heart attacks in 2010...I'm trying to keep everything positive but it's just a nightmare."

Kim said Paul will be extradited next month.

"He will go straight into custody from February 7. He's absolutely dreading it. What we've all been through over the last 10 years has been horrendous. If he comes out of this it will be an absolute miracle."

She explained that when Paul was released in 2010 the family thought that was the end of the matter.

However, a letter was sent to a previous address he lived at in 2014 informing him of the upcoming trial but Paul didn't get it.

A second letter was sent to his parents' home and when he received that his mother went to a Government TD for advice.

"My mother at the time went to [the TD] and he said to my mother don't send him back out there it will all just go away itself," Kim said.

"Looking back on it all I think it was very unprofessional to do that. That's he said/she said so there's no proof of that. He's retired now."

Two years later Paul suffered a catastrophic injury at work.

"He was doing a drop off in Carlow County Council waste depot. On that day there was very strong winds and he was up on a very high bank and one of the doors on back of the lorry came off its hinges and hit Paul on the back of the head."

She said last year Paul was told there was a European Arrest Warrant issued for him to be returned to France to serve the remainder of his sentence. Since then, he appeared in court on several occasions in relation to the extradition.

"The people who go to that court have no respect for anybody. They rock up in bin men vests T-shirts and flip flops and Canada Goose jackets. Paul isn't like that," Kim said.

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