A TOBACCO smuggling gang - including a Basildon man - who evaded more than £14.7m in duty have been jailed for a total of more than 28 years.

The gang of eleven, from across the UK, were caught following an investigation by HM Revenue and Customs (HMRC) at Tilbury Docks.

The group, all Lithuanian nationals, shipped millions of illegal cigarettes into the UK from Belgium, hidden in window frames, textiles and bags of charcoal.

Southend Standard:

The cigarettes hidden in window frames

HMRC investigators uncovered the smuggling plot after intercepting a shipping container in Cambridgeshire on September 15, 2016.

The container, which had arrived at the docks, was being unloaded when investigators swooped in. Nine people were arrested and more than three million non-UK duty paid cigarettes were found.

A further seven million cigarettes, concealed in window frames, were seized by HMRC at a warehouse in Catfield, Norfolk, on October 4, 2016.

Two people were arrested in connection with the find.

Nine previous importations linked to the gang are all believed to have contained illegal cigarettes.

Southend Standard:

The huge haul of illegal cigarettes

Seven of the gang were convicted of conspiracy to evade excise duty in two separate trials at Southwark Crown Court.

Darius Pavliukovas, 35, of Great Knightleys, Basildon, was given five years in prison.

Vaidas Mockevicius, 33, of Ilford, received three years, Jana Dobrovolskiene, 42, from London, received two years six months, Leva Zamblauskaite, 29, of Bootle, received a suspended sentence, Deividas Jankys, 33, of Loughton, received three years, Mantvydas Seidvarkas, 37, of Purfleet, received one year and nine months, and Romas Urbonas, 48, was sentenced in absence to two years and six months.

Four other gang members - Mantas Veniukevicius, 32, Zilvinas Urbonas, 44, Edmundas Kankys, 35, and Rasa Zamblauskaite, 53, admitted the charged and received sentences ranging from a community order to four years in prison.

The court heard that Veniukevicius was the gang leader, responsible for organising the importation of the cigarettes, renting premises to stash them and overseeing distribution. Edmundas Jankys and Pavliukovas were senior players in the plot, managing other gang members and co-ordinating onward distribution.

The other defendants had a variety of mid to low-level roles in unloading the cigarettes and delivering to buyers.

A number of the defendants attempted to escape justice by fleeing the UK. This included Mockevicius, who was extradited from Lithuania in January 2019, and Veniukevicius, who was extradited from Norway in February 2019.

Edmundas Jankys had been deported but was arrested in January 2019 after breaching his deportation order by returning to the UK. Another man arrested as part of the operation was also deported.

Romas Urbonas was convicted in absence after absconding. A warrant has been issued for his arrest.

Following sentencing, the illegal cigarettes will now be destroyed.

Alison Chipperton, Assistant Director, Fraud Investigation Service, said: "This was a multi-million pound illicit business involving a close-knit gang of criminals. The logistics were planned meticulously, trackers were used on consignments, mobile phones were changed regularly and only trusted people were in on the plot.

"Several members of the group tried desperately to frustrate our investigations, providing false names, leaving the country and failing to attend court, but justice has now been served.

"The sale of illegal tobacco will not be tolerated by us or our partner agencies. Disrupting criminal trade is at the heart of our strategy to clampdown on the illicit tobacco market, which costs the UK around £1.8 billion a year. This is theft from the taxpayer and undermines legitimate traders.

"We encourage anyone with information about the illegal sale of tobacco to report it online or call the Fraud Hotline on 0800 788 887."