News and Views
Gambian diplomats ran tax-free tobacconist from their London embassy – cheating taxpayers out of £5million in revenue
- Seven senior figures ordered 29 tonnes of rolling tobacco in three years
- 500,000 pouches including Golden Virginia bought from Essex warehouse
- They got discounted rates only allowed through their diplomatic status
- But Foreign Office saw huge order forms and alerted tax investigators
- Gang face jail after Gambian government waived diplomatic immunity
A gang of Gambian diplomats face jail after they avoided £5million in tax by turning their London embassy into a tobacconist.
Seven staff members ‘systematically abused’ diplomatic tax exemptions to order 29 tonnes of rolling tobacco in just three years – more than half a million pouches.
They were caught after the Foreign and Commonwealth Office was alerted to the system being abused and told tax inspectors, who found more than 60 enormous order forms.
They decided the vast amounts could not possibly be for personal use and launched a criminal probe which led the Gambian government to waive the workers’ diplomatic immunity.
All seven were at the Gambian Diplomatic Mission in Kensington, west London, and included its deputy head Yusapha Bojang, 54, and first secretary Gaston Sambou, 48.
They denied conspiracy to cheat the public revenue but were found guilty after a trial at Southwark Crown Court lasting more than a month.
The jury heard they ordered so much tobacco that the firms which supplied them, International Diplomatic Supplies Limited and Chacalli De Decker, often could not bring enough.
Driver Christopher Pelc, who gave evidence for the prosecution, said he was hired to deliver boxes crammed full of Golden Virginia and Old Holborn pouches from a warehouse in Tilbury, Essex.
Once he arrived at the Mission, a £6million redbrick townhouse in one of London’s most expensive streets, he gave the orders to front desk secretary Audrey Leeward, 48, who signed for them.
They would then be put in a ‘back room’, the trial heard – and it was a regular occurrence, since he saw Leeward so often that she had a pet name for him.
Diplomats in Britain are allowed to order alcohol, perfume and tobacco without having to pay VAT or excise duty because of their status.
They are only permitted to buy the products for personal use by themselves or other colleagues within their embassies.
But the Gambian diplomats took advantage of a loophole in which there was a quota on the number of cigarettes they could order, but not the amount of hand rolling tobacco.
That meant they were allowed to sign off more than 60 diplomatic order forms between 2009 and 2012 before the alarm was raised.
They broke the law by selling the goods from their Kensington headquarters – making them once again eligible to pay around £4.8million in tax.
The Foreign and Commonwealth Office had to ask permission from the Gambian government for the men to be prosecuted.
Normally diplomats would be exempt from prosecution, but it was decided that the normal privileges would be waived.
The court heard Bojang and Sambou both abused their diplomatic privileges along with welfare officer Georgina Gomez, 29, and finance attaché Ebrima John, 38.
The other guilty workers – Leeward, 54-year-old driver Veerahia Ramarajaha and 60-year-old secretary Hasaintu Noah – did not have diplomatic privileges, but aided the tax fraud.
Driver Ramarajaha was also convicted of dealing, harbouring, concealing or carrying dutiable goods.
Eighth defendant Ida Jeng Njie, who worked in the same building for the Gambian Tourist Authority, was found not guilty of conspiracy to cheat the revenue.
Lisa Rose, a fraud specialist for the Crown Prosecution Service, said: ‘The deception undertaken by these defendants involved a serious breach of the trust of their own government and of the British people.
WHY DIPLOMATS HAVE IMMUNITY
Diplomatic immunity has existed for more than 50 years and is agreed on by almost every country in the world, even those with frosty international relations such as North Korea.
It was signed into law under the 1961 Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations to ensure diplomats can represent their nation without being harassed by their hosts.
This is particularly essential in countries which criminalise behaviour which would be perfectly acceptable at home, and those which prosecute people for political reasons.
But there have been abuses of the system – including the fact that diplomats do not have to pay parking fines.
More than £60million of London’s congestion charge fines have been avoided by embassies, Foreign Secretary William Hague revealed last year, including £7million by U.S. diplomats alone.
It is extremely rare for immunity to be waived, and it can only happen with the agreement of the diplomat’s home country. Some nations refuse on principle, while most reserve the measure only for serious crimes.
In 2002 Colombia waived diplomatic immunity on a London-based official who was accused of killing a mugger. He was later found not guilty of manslaughter and murder.