Leeds cigarette smuggler jailed

The ringleader of a major tobacco and cigarette smuggling gang, who lived in Leeds, has been jailed for three years and six months.

Zhi Wei Yang, a Chinese National, living on Swarcliffe Avenue, in the city, owned and ran a freight company and used a variety of aliases and company names to enable him to organise the purchase of illicit cigarettes and tobacco for distribution across the UK.

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The smuggling racket would have netted nearly 1.5 million in unpaid duty and allowed thousands of kilos of illicit tobacco and counterfeit cigarettes into the UK if it had not been stopped by HMRC investigators.

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The total excise duty and VAT evaded on the illicit consignments is estimated as 1,418,433

Bob Gaiger spokesman for HM Revenue & Customs said: "Hiding the cigarettes under legitimate loads was a blatant attempt to evade duty and deprive the UK of public funds. Honest retailers would have had their trade undercut had the cigarettes and tobacco reached the UK's streets. Criminals don't care about the impact their actions have on others; they only care about profit. If you know of any smuggling activities you can call our 24 hour hotline number on 0800 59 5000."

The fraud was uncovered after HMRC officers set up two covert surveillance operations to watch the delivery of two of the containers. The first load, supposed to be tea, was followed in November 2008 from Felixstowe to a self storage depot in London.

Three men were seen unloading the smuggled 6,864 kgs of tobacco from the back of the trailer. They were arrested and questioned; two were later released without charge.

The third man was later charged with smuggling offences but absconded and is still at large.

The second delivery to Cross Stamford Street, Leeds in November 2008 had documents for a shipment of plastic bags and storage shelves from China.

However as officers watched they saw seven men unloading boxes of empty branded hand rolling tobacco pouches including cellophane covers later found to be counterfeit. Caught red handed the men were arrested and questioned but later released without charge.