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When Vun Pui “Connie” Chong and her daughter, San Yan Melanie Lim, imported 25 kilograms of brown ginger tea into Australia this year, they intended to sell it at a marked-up rate. The beverage is a well-known remedy for period pain in the women’s home country of Malaysia. All going to plan, they stood to make a profit of about $90 AUD.
It didn’t. Instead, heavily-armed police officers raided Chong and Lim’s home in south-west Sydney in January, after Australian Border Force (ABF) officials intercepted the tea packets at the international airport and wrongly identified their contents as amphetamine. The women were arrested and jailed for four months – despite the fact that authorities were made aware of problems with the tests used to identify the substance in the weeks and months following.
Sydney’s Downing Local Court heard that the ABF used a presumptive “hazmat” test to identify the imported product as Phenmetrazine, an illegal stimulant drug commonly used for recreational purposes. Police subsequently confiscated the contents of the tea packets and replaced them with an inert substance, which was delivered to the women’s home and seized when authorities raided it the next day.
The court also heard, however, that the presumptive test merely generated a spectrum of similar substances to Phenmetrazine – and that the illicit drug was fourth most likely behind sugar, sucrose and powdered sugar.
“Mate in a nutshell we cannot take from this ABF result that the sample contains or does not contain Phenmetrazine,” a forensic operator from the Australian Federal Police wrote to Detective Senior Constable Tara Conaghan, the officer in charge of the investigation, in February, adding that she would need to have the sample tested independently to be sure.
The court heard that Conaghan did not pass this information onto the women’s defence team, nor did she inform them when she asked for forensic testing of the samples to be expedited after another officer from AFP emailed her claiming that laboratory results from two earlier seizures of similar products had determined there were “no prohibited substances detected.”
Chong and Lim were not bailed until May, and the charges against them were not withdrawn until August 10, after the New South Wales Police received their own forensic analysis.
When cross-examining Conaghan, Chong’s barrister Steve Boland asked her why she didn’t disclose the new information to the detainees sooner – to which she replied: “Because the drugs were still waiting to be completely tested.”
“So, what, they’ve got to sit it out in jail?” Boland asked, and was met with silence, according to The Sydney Morning Herald. “I’ll assume that question is not going to be answered,” he said.
Chong and Lim are now suing for costs, which the Commonwealth Director of Public Prosecutions has refused to pay. The case has been adjourned to March.
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