Seven Gambian diplomats who used their London embassy as a front for selling more than half a million pouches of tax-free tobacco have been found guilty of cheating the UK taxpayer out of almost £4.8m.
Yusupha Bojang, the deputy head of London’s Gambian Diplomatic Mission, ordered 29 tonnes of tax-free rolling tobacco in a three-year scam together with his colleagues.
During the trial, Southwark Crown court heard how the embassy building in London’s Kensington Court was transformed into a tobacconist store, with smokers queuing outside to buy imported packets of Old Holborn and Golden Virginia.
In some cases diplomats were ordering tobacco worth more than their annual salary – quite an investment, especially given that there was no evidence the defendants are smokers.
The racket meant more than £4.8m of tax revenue went evaded, the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) said. Bojang, along with first secretary Gaston Sambou, welfare officer Georgina Gomez and finance attaché Ebrima John – who all had diplomatic privileges – were found guilty of conspiracy to cheat the revenue along with Veerahia Ramarajaha, Audrey Leeward and Hasaintu Noah.
All of them had abused a scheme that granted duty-free-style tax exemption on goods for personal use. Ramarajaha was also convicted of dealing, harbouring, concealing or carrying dutiable goods. All seven were remanded in custody and will be sentenced tomorrow.
An 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.”
Gambian High Commissioner Elizabeth Ya Eli Harding, who was not a defendant, admitted she sometimes used the exemption scheme to buy perfume and rice, but had never discussed it with any of her staff.
She said she only became aware that her staff may have been abusing their diplomatic privileges when she received a letter from the Foreign & Commonwealth Office.
Lisa Rose, specialist fraud prosecutor at the CPS, said the deception amounted to “a serious breach of the trust of their own government and of the British people”.
“The scheme they designed and implemented not only resulted in the public purse being cheated of almost £4.8m in tax revenue, but it also abused their diplomatic status, taking advantage of the entire system of diplomatic privilege which is reliant on trust and responsibility.
“For all practical purposes, the scheme in operation was like running a business and the volume of tobacco was so large that to suggest it was for personal use, or for the use of the High Commission, is implausible.”
She thanked the government of Gambia for waiving diplomatic immunity in the case of four of the defendants. “The public should have confidence that in cases where our tax systems have been exploited, all steps will be taken to ensure that diplomatic staff cannot commit offences and then hide behind diplomatic immunity,” she said.