A Harrow company director has been jailed for five years for masterminding a plot to smuggle almost 12 million cigarettes into the country.
Valji Varsani, 41, was sentenced yesterday following an investigation by officers from HM Revenue & Customs (HMRC) into three separate consignments of 3.8 million counterfeit cigarettes.
Varsani stood to evade more than £2 million in VAT through the scam.
On March 20, 2008 a container said to contain plastic DVD cases arrived at the Port of Felixstowe from Yantian, China. An examination of the container revealed 3.8 million counterfeit “Sovereign” brand cigarettes.
A second freight container arrived at Felixstowe nine days later, again containing 3.8 million counterfeit cigarettes. Both containers had the same delivery address, an industrial unit in a Wembley business park. Checks revealed that Varsani was the director of the company that owned the industrial unit.
On 3 April 2008 a controlled delivery took place at the industrial unit in Wembley. Varsani was seen driving a Toyota Land Cruiser around the plot before the delivery. As the lorry was being unloaded, Varsani parked a short distance away where he could watch what was happening. Shortly before the unloading finished, HMRC officers moved in and Varsani was arrested along with four men who had been unloading. The five were interviewed and a number of domestic and business addresses were searched.
Following further investigations, a third container, due to be delivered to the same address, was examined at Felixstowe on 20 April 2008 and another 3.8 million counterfeit cigarettes discovered.
John Kay, Assistant Director of Criminal Investigation for HMRC, said: "This was a planned, large scale operation to illegally import cigarettes into the UK. We aim to protect society from this activity wherever we detect it and will not hesitate to pursue those involved.
"The general public need to be aware that the majority of smuggled cigarettes are usually counterfeit and because they are unregulated you have no idea what they contain.
“Smugglers are criminals and they will sell these cigarettes to anyone, including children. Anyone with information about activity they suspect may be linked to alcohol, drugs or tobacco smuggling should call our 24 hour Customs Hotline on 0800 59 5000."
In sentencing, His Honour Judge John Holt told Varsani: "You were instrumental in planning and organising the importations, and used false identities to distance yourself from the importations. You played for high stakes, you knew the risks and now you must pay the price and go to prison".
Varsani was charged with three counts of the fraudulent evasion of excise duty in relation to the three separate importations of around 11.5 million cigarettes. The total revenue and VAT evaded exceeds £2.2 million.
On Monday 27 April 2009 Varsani pleaded guilty to all three counts of fraudulent evasion of excise duty. On Friday 26 June he was sentenced to 5 years by Ipswich Crown Court.
Investigations have identified that Varsani has substantial realisable assets and a Restraint Order is currently in place. A confiscation hearing will take place later in the year.
This case was successfully prosecuted by the RCPO. RCPO is an independent prosecuting authority that reports to the Attorney General, and is responsible for the prosecution of all HMRC cases in England and Wales.