The owner of a shop where a large and complex operation to sell illicit cigarettes was run has avoided jail.
Yousef Rahimi sold thousands of illegal products from Leigh Local on Railway Road, where there was a sophisticated system involving a secret storage room rigged up with a baby monitor and a hole leading to the main stockroom just big enough to put tobacco products through.
Wigan magistrates heard the operation was there when he took over the shop, but he did not dismantle it as he thought it would boost business and encourage people to make legitimate purchases there too.
The 25-year-old admitted nine charges of selling counterfeit cigarettes or rolling tobacco with false trademarks on, another of offering smuggled smoking products with foreign-language health warnings on them and selling alcohol to an under-aged girl.
Rahimi, who is a refugee originally from Iran, was raided twice by Trading Standards and police in May and October last year, but after being caught out the first time merely carried on.
In total almost 6,000 cigarettes and nearly 1kg of rolling tobacco were seized from the premises. The court heard anyone who bought these products could have been harmed as it is impossible to know what they contained, with one brand only used in smuggling and organised crime among those found.
Prosecuting for Wigan Council, Alison Henderson told the court what happened when officers responded to complaints about Rahimi’s store. Ms Henderson said: “In May a search was conducted at the premises and nine different brands were discovered in the back stockroom and under the counter. Four of them were counterfeit and the remaining five smuggled foreign-labelled cigarettes.
“Following further complaints another search was undertaken and 12 brands found: five counterfeit and six foreign-labelled.
“The cigarettes were on a shelving unit in the stockroom. A light could be seen going through to another room and when told they would gain access the defendant produced a key.
“In this room the majority of the illicit cigarettes were found. There was also a computer and a baby monitor linked to the shop.
“There was a hole large enough to pass tobacco products through coming out at the shelving unit.
“This was an organised and professional operation, set up to avoid detection and despite the previous seizure in May.
“Purchasers were at risk of harm as no one knows what the contents of counterfeit cigarettes are.”
The court heard Rahimi claimed he had no responsibility for the shop in May, only to be told he had spoken to the town hall about the premises’ business rates two weeks previously.
The probe also coincided with the process of transferring the full premises licence to Rahimi from another man.
He said the tobacco was provided by “a Romanian man he did not know”, and it was accepted in court Rahimi was not part of any wider operation.
Rahimi also fell foul of a Trading Standards test purchasing exercise in October when he sold a can of Foster’s to a 15-year-old girl, making no attempt to check her age.
The court heard he had received leave to remain in the UK in 2017 and a criminal record could be a problem when this was up for review.
Kevin Liston, defending, said Rahimi, who was previously of good character, had left the tobacco operation in place due to poor judgement, while the probation service told the court he is remorseful.
Mr Liston said: “It’s fair to say the ownership of this shop has at times been less than transparent, but he accepts ultimately he has taken receipt of the lease for the shop and business rates that go with that. Others set up the storeroom and surveillance equipment, but he was fully aware of the situation and has done nothing to stop it.
“He has tried to make a contribution and his flawed logic was that members of the local community would enter the shop and while buying discount cigarettes would also buy items legitimately.”
Rahimi was ordered to complete 200 hours of unpaid work during a 12-month community order and to pay £1,500 in costs and an £85 victim surcharge.
The forfeiture and destruction of all the tobacco was also ordered.