All four men have been convicted of excise duty evasion and Umarji was also convicted of dangerous driving and handed a nine-month suspended prison sentence in June 2014 (Photo: HMRC).

Four men in the UK who were caught red-handed with more than 1.2 million illegal cigarettes in Stoke-on-Trent have been handed prison sentences totalling 30 months.

Mark Taylor, 50, from Scotland and Altaf Umarji, 47, from Leicester, were caught by HM Revenue and Customs (HMRC) investigators in January 2014 with nearly 900,000 illegal cigarettes at a Little Chef car park, near Talke.

Paul Taft, 42, from Stoke, and Surinder Heer, 44, from Walsall, had been loading boxes into a VW van at a nearby pallet company. Both men tried to run from the scene but were stopped and arrested. Officers discovered 215,400 cigarettes inside the vehicle and a further 88,200 non-duty paid cigarettes in a container.

Taylor and Umarji had driven in convoy to the restaurant car park after first meeting in a lay-by on the A500. Taylor was challenged and arrested by HMRC officers who found the cigarettes, HMRC said.

Umarji escaped from the scene but was pursued by police officers who discovered £5,000 in Scottish banknotes inside the car. He was also caught on camera throwing cigarettes from the van he was driving.

Angela McCalmon, Assistant Director, Fraud Investigation Service, HMRC, said, “these four were involved in the theft from the taxpayer on a massive scale. People involved in the supply and sale of illegal cigarettes are depriving public services of vital funding and undermining legitimate traders.

“The £600,000 of lost public money, in this case, is the equivalent starting salary of 25 police officers…,” she added.

All four men have been convicted of excise duty evasion and Umarji was also convicted of dangerous driving and handed a nine-month suspended prison sentence in June 2014.

Umarji pleaded guilty to fraudulent evasion of excise duty following his arrest. Taylor, Taft and Heer pleaded guilty to the same offence on the opening day of their trial on December 10, 2018.

The men were sentenced to a total of 30 months prison at Stoke-on-Trent Crown Court. The 1.2 million 777 branded cigarettes, worth more than £600,000 in unpaid duty, have been seized and destroyed.

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