TWO men were allegedly trafficked from Lithuania to carry out shoplifting sprees in towns across Northern Ireland, the High Court has heard.
One of them claims he was told that either him or his family would be killed if they stopped stealing from retail parks and centres.
Details emerged on Tuesday as bail was granted to a 55-year-old man accused of running the suspected racket.
Edmundas Kavaliauskas, also a Lithuanian national with an address at Mill Street in Gilford, Co Down, denies charges of human trafficking and threats to kill.
He was arrested last month by police investigating complaints first raised in October 2015.
Prosecution counsel Conor Maguire said two Lithuanian men, aged in their 20s and 50s, walked into Portadown police station to claim they had been trafficked by Kavaliaskus.
The pair told officers they came to Northern Ireland last September to work as apple pickers, living in a caravan with other men.
“They both claimed that after they finished their day’s work they were picked up by this applicant (Kavaliauskas), driven to numerous shopping centres and forced to carry out shoplifting,” Mr Maguire said.
Outlets allegedly targeted included the Junction One retail park and Asda store in Antrim, along with businesses in other towns.
One of them claimed he was assaulted when he refused to steal. He left Northern Ireland before any statement of complaint could be taken.
The younger man alleged that he was subjected to a death threat in a bid to force him to continue shoplifting, the court heard.
Police have obtained CCTV footage from centres showing both men stealing, according to Mr Maguire.
Despite searching for Kavaliauskas officers were unable to locate him because he had returned to his native country for a period.
He was arrested on May 25 after being stopped by residents in Antrim over an unrelated issue.
Defence counsel Tony Lunney said the accused has worked as a sub-contractor for up to six years, bringing Lithuanian men in to work in orchards in Armagh.
“The applicant denies completely any criminality in respect of the trafficking or the alleged threat to kill,” Mr Lunney said.
Describing the claims as “a complete fabrication”, the barrister instead contended that one of the complainants may have assaulted his client.
Granting bail, Mr Justice Colton ordered the accused to provide a £2,000 cash surety and surrender all travel documents.