(JollofNews) – A group of Gambian diplomats fleeced the taxpayer out of nearly £5million by importing 32 tonnes of tobacco which they pretended was for personal use, a court has heard.
Yusupha Bojang, 54, the Deputy Head of the Gambian Diplomatic Mission in Kensington, and his seven co-defendants allegedly ordered so much tax-free tobacco that suppliers could not keep up with demand.
In some cases, the defendants – all of whom have connections to the Gambian Diplomatic Mission – were ordering tobacco worth more than their annual salary while still claiming it was for personal use, Southwark Crown Court was told.
The eight defendants allegedly masterminded the plot by abusing a scheme which grants tax exemption on goods to Diplomatic Missions, provided they are for personal use.
In a similar-way to duty-free products, jurors heard the diplomats could use the system to purchase items such as tobacco, alcohol and perfume, all of which were free of excise duty and VAT.
The court heard that defendants collectively ordered or were invoiced for more than half a million 50g pouches of tobacco during the three-year scam – despite evidence suggesting none of them smoked.
International Diplomatic Supplies Ltd and Chacalli De Deckerwere, which both supplied the mission, were unable to meet the extraordinary demand, jurors were told.
Opening the case, prosecutor Jane Bewsey QC said: ‘On any view that is a lot of tobacco.
‘No one can seriously be suggesting that the amount of hand rolling tobacco ordered by the defendant in this case could have been for their own use or for the use of their families.
‘Indeed there is some evidence that few, if any, of these defendants actually smoked.’
The court heard that among the defendants with diplomatic privileges were First Secretary Gaston Sambou, 48, from Edgeware, Middlessex; finance attaché Ebrima John, 38, from Kensington and welfare officer Georgina Gomez, 29, from Newham, east London.
Fellow defendants Audrey Leeward, 48, a receptionist from Croydon, secretary Hasaintu Noah, 60, from Wimbledon, and driver Veerahia Ramarajaha, 54, from Harrow, Middlesex, all worked for the mission but did not have diplomatic privileges, the court was told.
Ida Njie, 42, from Slough, was employed by the Gambian Tourist Authority whose offices were in the same building as the High Commission.
During the period of the alleged fraud, the Gambia had a high commission, which became an embassy when the country left the Commonwealth.
Ms Bewsey saud: ‘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.
‘All but one of the defendants was employed by the Gambian Mission. Four were employed as part of the diplomatic staff with the diplomatic privileges that go with those roles.
‘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.’
She added: ‘In particular, we shall be looking at the amount of hand-rolling tobacco ordered by those in the name of the Gambian Mission.
‘In that time, three of these defendants, Bojan, Sambou and John, purported to authorise duty free orders of hand rolling tobacco which totalled in excess of 32,000kg – that is 32 metric tonnes in a three year period.
‘They were the people who signed the C426 forms.
‘Between them, these eight defendants places orders and were invoiced for 26,500kg of hand rolling tobacco free of duty and VAT.
‘The cost to the defendants of the orders made in the name of individual defendants in a year often exceeded the value of their entire income from their employment at the Gambian Mission.
‘On any view these orders were of commercial quantities. 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.’
The court also heard that diplomatic immunity – whereby foreign diplomats are not subject to criminal laws in their host country – did not apply in this case.
She said: ‘You may have heard of the concept of diplomatic immunity whereby foreign diplomats are not subject to the criminal laws of the country in which they are stationed.’
But she added there are ‘no issues concerning immunity’ in this case and all defendants were subject to UK law.
‘Foreign Missions and their staff enjoy certain privileges by virtue of their diplomatic status in this country,’ she added.
All defendants deny a single charge of conspiracy to cheat the public revenue. Ramarajaha denies a further charge of harbouring dutiable goods.
The trial continues.