A PAIR of soldiers smuggled thousands of cigarettes into the UK while serving in Afghanistan, a court heard.
Former Royal Logistic Corps sergeant Gareth Parry, 39, and corporal David McEwan, 42, carried out the scam while working in the British Army post room at Kabul International Airport in 2017 and 2018.
Swindon Crown Court heard the pair would buy cigarettes and tobacco at a cut-price rate in markets at the airport and the Afghan capital. They would package the contraband, address it to friends and family in the UK then slip it into postbags that had been cleared by security.
Parry, who had enjoyed a glittering army career and was on the fast-track to success, had used a similar tactic to send cigarettes home while he was stationed in Bahrain a few months earlier.
In total, the men sent home 297,000 cigarettes and an estimated 10.5kg of rolling tobacco under the radar of HMRC. Parry alone was said to have avoided paying around £34,000-worth of duty on the items.
Gareth Parry (left) and David McEwan outside Swindon Crown Court Picture: ADVER PHOTOGRAPHER
Prosecutor Don Tait said that in early 2018 an RAF officer had overheard McEwan talking to another colleague as they visited the market at the airport. As he pointed to a shop he was said to have told the friend: “I go in every week and tell him how many cigarettes I want. He tells me how much, I tell him no and pay him this much instead.”
On a stopover on the way back to the UK, the same airman said he heard McEwan boasting to another, talking of making “thousands of pounds”.
In a message sent by Parry in March 2018, to the soldier expected to relieve him, he wrote: “How do you feel about going into the fags business when you’re out here, mate?”
The court heard the pair had a network of addresses to which they sent the parcels. Among the recipients were Parry’s golfing partner, Gert Coetzee, 51, another soldier Ben Wilson, 32, Gary Tomlinson, 32, and a friend of Parry’s wife, Jennifer Cherry, 40,
The recipients would either buy the cigarettes and tobacco for themselves or sell it on for a minimal profit.
Interviewed by the authorities, Gareth Parry said he would buy a sleeve of 200 cigarettes for $20. He could sell it for twice that. Between December 2017 and March 2018, he said £7,970 paid into his bank account related to profits from his cigarette sideline. Around £7,000 of that sum was from cigarettes sent to the UK, with the remainder from cigarettes sold to other servicemen.
The total loss to HM Revenue and Customs attributable to Parry was said to be £34,623. While stationed in Bahrain he was said to have spent over £10,000 on duty free, with 70 per cent of the expenditure going on cigarettes and tobacco. Estimates based on his bank records pointed to him withdrawing £9,000 while in Kabul. McEwan had withdrawn £3,700.
Wilson, another serviceman, came forward after an appeal by his commanding officers. He admitted receiving a parcel a week over around a two-and-a-half month period.
Jennifer Cherry (left) and Rosie Parry Picture: ADVER PHOTOGRAPHER
Gareth Parry’s wife, Rosie, 31, denied involvement in the distribution of cigarettes when she was interviewed by the authorities. The court heard she had asked her friend, Jennifer Cherry, who had bought some of the smuggled cigarettes, to lie to HMRC investigators.
Gareth Parry, of Dydale Road, Swindon, pleaded guilty to conspiracy to evade duty and a charge of evading duty.
McEwan, of Cleveland Road, Swindon, Rosie Parry, of Dydale Road, Swindon, Cherry, of Meadowsweet Close, Swindon, Tomlinson, of Gray Road, South Cerney, Coetzee, of Morecombe Way, Fairford, and Wilson, of Pevensey Way, Quedgeley, pleaded guilty to conspiracy to evade duty.
Kellie Enever, for Gareth Parry, said her client had served his country to distinction for 20 years. He had left the army and stood to lose around £250,000 in pension contributions. The father had turned to cigarette smuggling in order to pay off a debt. “This was seen as a way of trying to make money quick,” the barrister said. A character reference provided by a Lt Col Tindale described the defendant as “a decent, hardworking man who’s given the best years of his life to serve his country”.
Tony Bignall, for McEwan, said the former soldier had been a gambling addict – taking the posting in Afghanistan as the pastime was banned in the country so there would be no temptation. He had since addressed the addiction with help from his wife. He was now working as a lorry driver. McEwan admitted evading £9,000-worth of duty.
Gert Coetzee, Gary Tomlinson and Ben Wilson Picture: ADVER PHOTOGRAPHER
Emma Handslip, for Coetzee, said her client had been asked by Parry if he could receive cigarettes – suggesting that soldiers were given a tobacco ration that they could send home. He had initially helped out as he could see his golfing partner was struggling. The South African national was of previous good character and, as a result of court proceedings, had not been able to renew his visa – and so felt unable to return home to see his mother. He admitted not paying £5,000-worth of duty.
Matthew Bolt, for Wilson, asked the judge to consider a conditional discharge. His client was still in the army and there were question marks over whether the Ministry of Defence would give the man security clearance, without which it would be difficult for him to continue in the armed services. While awaiting sentence he had “done everything within his power to try and redeem himself both in the eyes of this court and the army”, including raising money for charity and taking a leading role in regimental sports teams. He had evaded £5,000-worth of duty.
Robert Lindsey, for Rosie Parry, said his client’s best mitigation was her guilty plea. Despite suffering with poor mental health she could carry out unpaid work. Her part in the conspiracy was worth £3,000 in lost duty.
Rhianna Fricker, for Tomlinson, said the father of three accepted entering into a conspiracy with Parry. She asked the judge to consider a conditional discharge. He admitted skipping £800-worth of duty.
Rob Ross, for Cherry, said the woman had helped the HMRC – even producing a witness statement confirming her erstwhile friend had asked her to lie to the taxman. She had expected to be a witness and had felt “stitched up” when she was charged as part of the conspiracy. The loss to the taxman from her part in the conspiracy was £615.
All the defendants’ lawyers asked the judge to take into account the significant delay in the case coming to court.
Judge Jason Taylor QC sentenced Gareth Parry to two years’ imprisonment suspended for two years. He must complete 300 hours of unpaid work. The judge said: “Despite the seriousness of the offence, this is the only blemish on Mr Parry’s otherwise pro-social life where he’s served his country.” He noted the delay in the case and the fact Parry stood to lose £250,000 from his pension. Judge Taylor added of the suspended sentence: “This should not be viewed in any way shape or form as minimising the seriousness of what he did.”
McEwan received 16 months’ imprisonment suspended for two years with 200 hours of unpaid work.
Wilson was fined £2,000. The judge said: “My clear intention in passing this sentence is that you remain in service as a productive member of the armed forces and that necessarily involves you retaining your security clearance. From what I have seen in this case nothing in my judgement should affect that security clearance.”
Coetzee and Rosie Parry each received 12 month community orders with 125 hours of unpaid work. Tomlinson was fined £500. Cherry received a 12 month conditional discharge.
All the defendants except Cherry were ordered to pay £500 costs.
Last year, former soldier Jan Coetzee was cleared of conspiring to evade excise duty.