By Marcus Leach

Four men who were part of a major international smuggling operation that had the potential to manufacture illicit tobacco on a commercial scale were jailed on Friday.

The gang were in the process of setting up an illegal counterfeit tobacco factory which would have netted them many millions of pounds in unpaid duty when they were raided by HM Revenue & Customs.

“This was a planned fraud on a huge scale," John Kay, HM Revenue & Customs (HMRC) Assistant Director of Criminal Investigation said.

"If it had not been stopped the UK market would have been flooded with massive quantities of illegal counterfeit tobacco products. Criminals do not care who they sell to, they are only out to make a profit and line their own pockets."

The plot was uncovered when over 100 HMRC officers, supported by Police and the Serious Organised Crimes Agency (SOCA) raided premises in Suffolk, Leicestershire, Nottinghamshire and Essex in July 2008.

At a farm in Leicestershire, officers discovered over sixteen tonnes of raw leaf tobacco which would have been manufactured into hand rolling tobacco. The duty evaded on this amount of tobacco alone is estimated as £1.9 million. The scam was linked to Bulgaria and in a joint operation, officers from the Bulgarian National Counter Organised Crime Agency simultaneously searched premises in Bulgaria.

Robert John Minshall made arrangements to purchase a tobacco manufacturing machine from a company in Bulgaria. Although he made several visits to the country and contractually agreed to the importation of the machinery the delivery never took place. The day to day operation of the shredding machine and manufacture of the illicit tobacco products was to be controlled by David Vincent Scott and Nigel James Barton. William Keith Sartin also met with the trio to set up the factory.