Father and sons jailed for huge DVD scam

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The Independent Online

A father and his two sons who used dozens of Chinese "slaves" to pull off Britain's biggest DVD piracy scam were jailed for up to six years each today.

The "sophisticated" operation, which made up to £7 million, hid behind a "veneer of respectability" as it imported cutting edge equipment from the Far East.

Khalid Sheikh, 53, and sons Rafi, 26, and Sami, 28, used it to "burn" the latest box office hits like Ice Age 2, the Da Vinci Code and Iron Man to "the best industry standards possible".

Quite often the lucrative productions were being touted on street corners for as little as £3 each even before their big screen debuts.

The family, whose members were claiming benefits, further boosted their multi-million pound turnover by reproducing so many porn and bestiality films some sex film shops were driven out of business.

London's Southwark Crown Court heard a hallmark of the success of the three-year fraud was the purchase of a £658,000 warehouse headquarters in Essex just two years after starting in a small shop in Walthamstow, east London.

They farmed their business out to a string of cramped "factories" - semi-detached houses scattered across the capital - with enough raw materials to copy hundreds of thousands of DVDs.

They were staffed by "largely illegal Chinese immigrants", some of whom are thought to have been smuggled into the UK.

John Hardy, QC, prosecuting, told the court they "worked round-the-clock in conditions of virtual slavery".

Police believe much of the gang's "vast" ill-gotten gains have been smuggled out of the country.

However, tens of thousands were spent by some of the conspirators on first class flights to luxury holiday destinations around the world.

Also on their pleasure list were numerous visits to lap dancing clubs, including Spearmint Rhino.

A confiscation hearing will be held later.

Rafi and Sami Sheikh, of Larkshall Road, North Chingford, Essex, were each jailed for six years while their father, who lived with them, was jailed for four years.

The younger Sheikhs were convicted of conspiracy to contravene copyright laws, contravene the trademark legislation and acquire criminal property between March 2003 and June 2006 when they were arrested in coordinated police raids.

Their father was found guilty of the copyright plot.

Also before the court was Xin Li, 34, of Victoria Road, Walthamstow, who was convicted of concealing criminal property.

He was jailed for two years three months.

Sentencing, Judge Martin Beddoe said: "The evidence suggested tens of thousands of burnt counterfeit material was being produced each week in so-called factories where vulnerable immigrants from China were patently being exploited for substantial financial reward."

He told the Sheikhs it was equally clear the operation generated "significant illicit revenue extending into millions of pounds a year, of which you were getting a significant financial share".

Addressing Khalid Sheikh, the judge said: "You were not only the head of the family as father of your sons but in reality the head of a significant organisation ... which had become part legitimate and part criminal.

"What I find really distasteful is you corrupted and exploited your children for your own financial interests."

He continued: "It is obvious that the damage these offences cause is ... the theft of the intellectual property of others.

"It affects the livelihood of those who create that material. It affects the livelihood of the many employed in the retail trade and the distribution of that material legitimately to members of the public.

"It also causes considerable economic damage ... and considerable personal grief when it results in unemployment."

The judge told the two sons there was no doubt they had been "motivated by greed and selfish interests" and were an "integral part of the conspiracy".

Dealing with Li, he said that apart from the £23,000 criminal proceeds found in his bedroom, his various admissions about his past showed he was already an experienced counterfeiter when he became involved with the Sheikhs.

After the case, Detective Superintendent Russell Day, of the Met's Film Piracy Unit, said three years of hard work and investigation had resulted in the dismantling of "an extensive criminal network".

"Their crimes not only had an impact on the major motion picture houses but also the consumers and in particular the vulnerable Chinese who became victims of the slave labour force.

"Film piracy is not a victimless crime and it is crucial that the public ask themselves if they want to play a part in the exploitation of vulnerable people by buying illegal DVDs," said the officer.

Kieron Sharp, director general of the Federation Against Copyright Theft (Fact), said: "This is a significant success for the Met's Film Piracy Unit working together with Fact.

"The focus of this operation was to dismantle an illicit business sustaining the organised crime gangs running largescale counterfeiting of audio-visual media.

"This was not a small scale business - this was a well-run and highly organised and criminal enterprise with links to the international crime gangs that are impacting on the livelihoods of the tens of thousands of people who work in the UK film and TV industries.

"The success in this case comes on the back of a long and complex investigation initiated by Fact and pursued through the diligence of officers from the Met. I would like to thank them for all their hard work," he added.

John Hardy QC, prosecuting, told the three-month trial the Sheikhs were part of a "conspiracy to flood London, the south east of England and beyond with pirate DVDs and to thereby acquire the proceeds of crime.

"Amongst many other indicators, certain cash seizures from premises associated with certain of the defendants demonstrate the vast profits this activity could and can produce."

The barrister said among the "essential" ingredients needed for the operation's success was a "veneer of legitimacy and respectability".

"This was provided by the creation of a company called Samrana Ltd in March 2003."

He said while a large part of its business was the "perfectly ordinary and lawful" import and export of DVD case inlays, it was simply a "shield" for the company's real purpose.

Both Sami and Rafi were directors, while their father provided the initial £70,000 to launch it.

Also vital were powerful computers and DVD "burners" imported from the Far East, and the Chinese workforce of "virtual slaves".

"Thus equipped they could carry out their plans. By way of example, major blockbuster films such as Ice Age 2 and The Da Vinci Code became available in pirated editions almost as soon as, and in some cases before, they had gone on cinematic release.

"At first it may seem this was something of a Robin Hood type of activity - the works of major production studios, often in Hollywood, were being distributed cheaply for about £3 each in relatively good quality copies to members of the public who might not otherwise be able to afford them."

The reality, however, was far different.

"The losers ... are not only the major motion picture houses, as well as smaller film-makers such as the producers of Wallace and Gromit, but also - to name but four groups - shopkeepers, cinemas, the slave labour force and the law-abiding public at large."

Mr Hardy said the gang was also deeply involved in the "illegal duplication of pornographic material".

The court heard the coordinated police raids three years ago not only saw the seizure of equipment, large amounts of DVDs and a six-figure fortune in cash, but also discovered that despite the millions they were making the Skeikhs were enjoying cash housing benefit handouts.

Sheikh senior was also on incapacity benefit while regularly jetting off abroad on holidays and to meet business contacts.