(JollofNews) – A gang of Gambian diplomats who ran a tax-free tobacconist from their embassy are facing jail for cheating the British taxpayer out of £5million.
Yusupha Bojang, 54, the deputy head of the Gambian Diplomatic Mission in Kensington, and his colleagues ordered 32 metric tonnes of tax-free rolling tobacco in the three-year racket.
They abused a scheme which granted duty-free style tax exemption on goods for personal use and used delivery drivers to send them more than half a million 50g pouches.
In some cases they were ordering tobacco worth more than their annual salary but they did not even smoke, Southwark Crown Court heard.
The Gambian embassy was turned into a tobacconists with customers queuing up to buy packets of Old Holborn and Golden Virginia rolling tobacco.
Diplomatic immunity, which would have been enjoyed by some of the defendants, was waived by the Government of the Gambia.
Bojang, First Secretary Gaston Sambou, 48, finance attache Ebrima John, 38, and welfare officer Georgina Gomez, 29, all had diplomatic privileges.
Three co-accused were locally employed support staff who did not enjoy diplomatic privileges as a result of their employment.
They were staff members receptionist Audrey Leeward, 48, secretary Hasaintu Noah, 60, and driver Veerahia Ramarajaha, 54.
On Monday a jury found the group guilty of cheating the public revenue by majority after 15 hours and 32 minutes of deliberation.
Ramarajaha was also found guilty of a further charge of harbouring dutiable goods at his home in Pinner, north-west London.
Eighth defendant Ida Njie, 42, was employed by the Gambian Tourist Authority whose offices were in the same building as the High Commission.
She was acquitted of one count of cheating the public revenue and fell to the floor weeping as she left the dock.
Judge Michael Gledhill QC said: “That demonstrates the pressure that each of the defendants must be under as we speak – I am very alert to that.”
He adjourned sentence until Wednesday and remanded the remaining defendants in custody.
Deliveries to the Gambian High Commission were usually taken and signed for by Leeward who sat on the front desk.
Witness Christopher Pelc worked as a driver at the time of the allegations and delivered huge quantities of tobacco to the Mission in Kensington.
He saw Leeward so often she had a pet name for him.
Boxes crammed with pouches of Golden Virginia and Old Holborn tobacco, were collected by Mr Pelc on behalf of International Diplomatic Supplies Ltd (IDS).
He collected the high-value tobacco from the London City Bond Warehouse in Tilbury, Essex, before driving it to the Mission and leaving it in a ‘back room’.
There were “frequent occasions” when neither IDS nor second supply company Chacalli De Decker could meet the Mission’s extraordinary hunger for rolling tobacco.
Another driver saw queues of people at the premises who appeared to be purchasing pouches of tobacco.
But Bojang emphatically denied ordering thousands of pounds worth of the high-value tobacco and insisted he knew nothing about the orders in his name.
He insisted he was not part of the racket but admitted: “Whatever profit is brought to me I am content with that.”
Finance attache Ebrima John, 38, told jurors he was recruited into the racket when he started working at the Commission and thought he was “entitled” to place orders.
John moved from The Gambia to the UK in December 2009 and said he was told he was “entitled” to use the duty free system by his predecessor, Maimuna Jobe-Coker.
“She said they are Gambian and as a Gambian… we help each other,” he told the court.
“We, as an embassy, we represent Gambia – if they need anything we should help.”
Gambian High Commissioner Elizabeth Ya Eli Harding, who was not a defendant, admitted she sometimes used the scheme to buy perfume and rice, but had never discussed it with any of her staff.
Mrs Harding added she only became aware that her staff may be abusing their diplomatic privileges when she received a letter from the Foreign & Commonwealth Office.
Prosecutor Jane Bewsey QC said: “This case is about the systematic abuse by these defendants, all of whom were connected in one way or another with the Gambian Diplomatic Mission in London, of the system of privilege which allows Diplomatic Missions and their staff based in the UK to order goods free from both Excise Duty and VAT.
“The abuse of the system by these defendants led to a loss to the British Revenue of Excise and VAT not paid of just short of £4.8m in the three year period of the indictment.”
The purchase of the duty-free goods was authorised on “C426” forms which were authorised by Mrs Harding.
But in her absence Bojang was permitted to sign off the purchases.
He authorised 31 forms for in excess of 21,000kg of hand rolling tobacco.
Sambou signed off 29 forms, covering more than 9,000kg and John signed four, authorising more than 2,000kg of tobacco.
“In monetary terms this equated to a loss to the UK revenue of duty and VAT not paid of just under £4.8m,” said Ms Bewsey.
“By inference no doubt ordered for commercial gain and in complete contravention of both the letter and the spirit of the law giving foreign diplomats exemption from UK taxes and duties,” added Ms Bewsey.
Bojang, of Loughton, Essex; Gomez, of Newham, east London; John, of Kensington, west London; Leeward, Croydon, south London; Njie, of Slough; Noah, of Wimbledon, south-west London; and Sambou, of Edgware, Middlesex, all denied a single charge of conspiracy to cheat the public revenue.
Ramarajaha, of Harrow, Middlesex, denied conspiracy to cheat the public revenue and a further charge of harbouring dutiable goods.
They were remanded in custody ahead of sentence on December 10.
Source: The Telegraph