A FORMER soldier from Cirencester with a glittering service record was cleared of cigarette smuggling in less than an hour by a Swindon jury.
Prosecutors alleged former Royal Logistic Corps corporal Jan Coetzee was involved in a conspiracy to smuggle duty free cigarettes and rolling tobacco from Afghanistan to the UK via RAF Northolt.
But after a half-day trial at Swindon Crown Court, the jury found 37-year-old Coetzee not guilty of conspiracy to evade excise duty.
Seven people have already pleaded guilty to their involvement in the tobacco smuggling plot. They will be sentenced in the new year.
Gareth Parry was the leader, the jury in Coetzee’s trial was told. He worked in the British Forces Post Office at the Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul.
It was this position that allowed him to use the import duty system to send parcels of cigarettes and rolling tobacco to contacts back in the UK.
In all, HMRC officers estimate duty went unpaid on more than 200,000 cigarettes at a loss to the taxman of around £60,000. It was said during the trial that imports of up to 50 cigarettes qualified for excise duty relief.
The paths of Coetzee and Sgt Parry had crossed when both were serving in the British Army. Parry had once sent a golf putter to his friend’s home in order to prevent his wife from finding out he had bought the expensive club.
Parry contacted him again sometime in early 2018, asking if he could send some cigarettes. Coetzee said he could. It was not unusual for those serving overseas to send parcels to friends rather than their own homes, Coetzee’s defence barrister said. Spouses might move away while their husbands were on tour.
On March 29, 2018, three parcels were seized. In one was 7,200 cigarettes, while 5kg of rolling tobacco was split equally between the other two. The parcels were addressed to Jan Coetzee.
The former soldier denied being part of any smuggling conspiracy when he was interviewed without a solicitor by HMRC officers at Gablecross police station in December last year.
Closing the prosecution case, Donald Tait told jurors: “There are some significant unanswered questions in this case that might make you think this defendant knew exactly what was going on. He hadn’t been taken advantage of.”
Coetzee, of Drift Way, Cirencester, maintained his not guilty plea to conspiracy to fraudulently evade paying excise duty between November 2017 and April 2018.
Swindon Crown Court heard he had been a decorated soldier, leaving the British Army as a corporal in 2015 after a decade’s service. He had done several tours abroad, including to Afghanistan, and had been awarded four medals.
A friend of Coetzee described him as the most honest person he knew, saying: “He is a good man and we need more people like him.”
Jane Brady, defending, said: “It’s just a favour. A favour for a friend – and who wouldn’t in days of Amazon parcels and parcels going missing from doorsteps.
“It’s not a crime. It’s not a crime to do a favour for a friend when you don’t have any suspicion [a crime has taken place].”
Seven people will be sentenced in the new year. They are: Gareth Parry, 38, of Dydale Road, Gert Coetzee, 50, of Morecombe Way, Fairford, Jennifer Cherry, 39, of Meadowsweet Close, Swindon, David McEwan, 41, of Cleveland Road, Swindon, Rosie Parry, 30, of Dydale Road, Swindon, Gary Tomlinson, 31, of Gray Road, South Cerney, and Ben Wilson, 31, of Pevensey Way, Quedgeley.