Wigan black-marketeer’s £45,000 jail threat

Some of the cigarettes seized during the major operation
Some of the cigarettes seized during the major operation
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An illegal tobacco trader from Wigan, who was caught up in a major smuggling operation, has been told he must find £45,000 or face 15 months behind bars.

Kenneth Blakeley was convicted of being an accomplice of Blackburn postmaster Iqbal Haji, who masterminded a £16.5m sales scam, which was later smashed by customs inspectors.

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They caught 61-year-old Blakeley, of Mersey Road, Orrell, with around 171,000 cigarettes and 240kg of hand-rolling tobacco.

Undercover surveillance had been carried out by HM Revenues and Customs (HMRC) investigators on Haji and a number of his distributors over several weeks.

The Wigan Post reported in November how Blakeley, who pleaded guilty to a charge of knowingly evading excise duty, was given a 12-month suspended jail term at Preston Crown Court.

He was also ordered to observe a 60-day curfew by Judge Andrew Woolman after his name appeared in “dealers’ books” found at Haji’s home.

Prison sentences of between 13 months and four years were handed out to Haji’s other recruits, who hailed from across Lancashire. Haji was jailed for six years for heading the enterprise.

Blakeley was brought back to court under the Proceeds of Crime Act.

Judge Woolman determined that Blakeley’s likely benefit from his ill-gotten gains was £45,000. If he does not find that sum within three months or face a 15-month jail sentence.

Further proceedings against ringleader Haji, a fortnight ago, saw him ordered to find just under £479,000 or face a further four-year stretch in custody.

Speaking after the case Debbie Porter, HMRC’s fraud investigation service assistant director, said: “Our work doesn’t stop at conviction. While these men were being sentenced, our teams continued in their efforts to secure these funds to finance public services.

“We are determined to create a level playing field for local businesses by disrupting the illegal trade and punishing fraudsters. We urge anyone with information about the black market in smuggled cigarettes to contact us online or to call 0800 788 887.”