Cigarette smuggling ring smashed

SEVEN racketeers, including two caught twice during the same investigation, could face jail over a multi-million pound plot to smuggle cigarettes through Felixstowe.

SEVEN racketeers, including two caught twice during the same investigation, could face jail over a multi-million pound plot to smuggle cigarettes through Felixstowe.

After a six-week trial at Ipswich Crown two of the plotters, Safina Gaffar, 41, of Thornton Heath, Surrey, and Jason Manning, 30, were found guilty of conspiring to defraud the government by attempting to sneak 18 million cigarettes into the country.

Five others, including Gaffar's husband, Asif, 42, Burchell 'Peter' Bernard, 41, and Michael Smith, 28, both of Croydon, Surrey, along with Martyn Baxter, 25, of New Addington, Surrey, and David Richards, 43, of Swanley, Kent, had already admitted their involvement in the operation, prior to trial.

All except Manning, whose address was given as HM Prison, Norwich, are due to be sentenced at Ipswich on April 14.

Manning is currently serving a nine-year sentence for burglary with an imitation firearm last year and his sentencing for the smuggling offence is scheduled for April 21.

Safina Gaffar has been remanded in custody until her sentencing, while the other five have been released on bail.

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The black market cigarette scam, which was headed by the Gaffars, even saw Bernard and Smith arrested twice after they decided to carry on smuggling despite already being caught by Ipswich customs officers.

During their investigation forensic evidence linked the two men to being involved in a further importation only four months after they were arrested for a previous one.

The smuggling ring was finally smashed after 13 containers importing plastic articles, including ironing boards, from China had arrived at the Port of Felixstowe between November 2002 and January 2004.

Suffolk customs set up a sting, codenamed Waltzer, to snare the gang.

During the investigation officers discovered the first 12 containers were consigned to various addresses in Leicester under the guise of bogus companies set up by five of the smugglers. The final container was delivered to an address in Bolton.

Five of the loads were found to have concealed between 1.4m and 2.3m cigarettes. Although the packets were marked 'Benson and Hedges', all the cigarettes recovered were counterfeit.

After Safina Gaffar and Manning were convicted, Jim Jarvie, HM Customs assistant chief investigation officer, said: "This was a large-scale smuggling operation. It is a tribute to the professionalism of the detection and investigation teams that we have secured this result.

"The people who buy fake cigarettes need to realise the criminal gangs they support by buying these sub-standard goods deal not only in cigarettes but in all sorts of criminal activity.

"They also need to realise these cigarettes contain greater quantities of harmful products than legitimate products. That includes more tar, more nicotine and more carbon monoxide than genuine cigarettes.

Smoking fake cigarettes might be cheaper, but it's also more dangerous."

A BLACK market smuggling operation worth millions, the Gaffars' scam began to unravel on September 15, 2003.

Under covert surveillance by customs officers, a delivery was made to an address in Leicester that led to the arrest of many of those involved in the tax-evasion racket.

Two of those taken into custody were Baxter and Bernard, who were jointly charged with the importations. Smith and Manning were taken into custody shortly afterwards.

Inquiries into the Leicester swoop, traced similar importations and customs discovered eight other containers had been delivered to, or were destined for, addresses in the city.

Two had just arrived at Felixstowe and when examined were found to contain counterfeit cigarettes. Another container imported at the same time was abandoned at the port and later found to contain a similar quantity of cigarettes.

On December 27, 2003, another container of plastic goods from China arrived at the Suffolk docks. Customs officers discovered 2.3 million counterfeit cigarettes concealed within the load of Christmas trees and decorations.

The agent dealing with the importation received a phone call regarding the container from a man who identified himself as a Mr Bernard.

On January 23, last year, Ipswich-based officers led a swoop at the intended delivery address in Bolton.

One man was arrested, waiting with a van near to the delivery address. The suspect was interviewed and later released without charge, but checks on the red Iveco led them to another man from the Bolton area.

He told officers the vehicle was sold to two men in a car park near a restaurant in Prestwich, near Bolton, around 7am on January 23.

Forensic analysis of cigarette ends found in the cab of the van recovered from the delivery address in Bolton, revealed the presence of the DNA profiles for Smith and Bernard, who where then arrested and charged again.

The container was imported in Richards' name, leading to him being arrested and charged with the importation.

A contact number supplied to the shipping agent dealing with this importation was linked to Safina Aboobaker, an alias used by Safina Gaffar.

Inquiries at the hotel, next to the restaurant in Prestwich where the van was sold, discovered Asif Gaffar stayed at the hotel on January 23, 2004. The address he gave was the same as Safina Gaffar's.

On March 17, last year, officers raided the Gaffars' home and arrested them on suspicion of being involved in cigarette smuggling.

During a search of the premises items were found linking the couple to all the smuggled consignments under investigation.

In total customs officers believe 18m cigarettes had been imported between November 2002 and January last year, which amount to a loss in government revenue of around £2.7 million.