Posted on November 3, 2014

Gambian Diplomats Used Their London Embassy as Front for Selling Duty Free Tobacco in £5million Scam

Ollie Gillman, Daily Mail, October 31, 2014

A group of Gambian diplomats used their embassy in London as a front for selling duty free tobacco in a £5million scam, a court heard.

The Deputy Head of the Gambian Diplomatic Mission, Yusupha Bojang, 54, and his colleagues are accused of ordering 32 metric tonnes of tobacco in just three years.

They abused a scheme which granted them a duty-free tax exemption on goods for personal use by using delivery drivers to send them more than half a million 50g pouches of rolling tobacco, Southwark Crown Court heard.

In some cases they were ordering tobacco worth more than their annual salary but there is no evidence the eight defendants even smoked, the court heard.

Deliveries to the Gambian High Commission were usually taken and signed for by Audrey Leeward, 48, who sat on the front desk, it was said.

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 that she had a pet name for Mr Pelc, the court heard.

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 orders for rolling tobacco, the court was told.

Prosecutor Jane Bewsey QC said: ‘You are asked about the size of the boxes, if you look at where we can see that on this particular document [an order form] the Gambian Mission, it says 5 x 50 . . . in total to satisfy this order this order was 10 boxes?

‘That’s correct,’ replied Mr Pelc.

The order was for 1.25kg of tobacco and only made up one part of a larger list of requests for deliveries to the Mission in May 2010.

Another driver said he saw queues of people at the premises who appeared to be purchasing pouches of tobacco, the jury was told.

Over the three-year period the eight defendants–Bojang, First Secretary Gaston Sambou, 48, finance attache Ebrima John, 38, welfare officer Georgina Gomez, 29, Leeward, secretary Hasaintu Noah, 60, driver Veerahia Ramarajaha, 54, and Ida Njie, 42–collectively ordered or were invoiced for in excess of 530,000 50g pouches, it is said.

Ms Bewsey said there was ‘systematic abuse’ of the privileges granted to diplomatic missions and their staff based in the UK to order goods free from excise duty and VAT.

The ‘commercial’ scale scam led to a loss to the taxpayer of just short of £4.8m over three years, jurors heard.

Four of the defendants–Bojang, Sambou, John and Gomez–were employed as diplomatic staff and were therefore entitled to enjoy the tax-break on goods such as alcohol, perfume and tobacco for personal use.

Leeward, Noah and Ramarajaha were locally employed and therefore not entitled to the privileges.

Njie was employed by the Gambian Tourist Authority whose offices were in the same building as the High Commission.

She was not employed by the Gambian Mission and accordingly she should not have enjoyed any diplomatic privileges, the court heard.

Jurors were told that diplomatic immunity did not apply in this case and all the defendants were subject to UK law.

The purchase of the duty-free goods were permitted on forms authorised by the Head of Mission at the time, Elizabeth Harding.

But in her absence, Bojang was permitted to sign off the purchases and authorised 31 forms for more than 21,000kg of 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.

The cost of the ‘commercial’ quantity orders made in the names if individual defendants often exceeded their annual salary, jurors heard.

Ramarajaha denies conspiracy to cheat the public revenue and a further charge of harbouring dutiable goods.

The seven other defendants all deny a single charge of conspiracy to cheat the public revenue.

The trial continues.