Garlic smuggler flees conviction for £2m ginger fraud

Garlic impounded by HMRC HMRC impounded some of the Chinese garlic

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A man from west London is on the run after being sentenced to six years in jail for smuggling garlic from China into the UK.

Murugasan Natarajan, and his assistant Lakshmi Suresh, were convicted of dodging £2m in import duty.

They had told customs officials that thousands of kilos of garlic were, in fact, fresh ginger, which is untaxed.

The fraud was described by the judge as "sophisticated, persistent and prolonged".

The penalty was the longest sentence in the UK handed down in recent years for evasion of customs duty, HM Revenue & Customs (HMRC) said.

Natarajan, 57, skipped bail after his arrest last year and was tried in his absence.

At the Old Bailey, Judge Worsley QC sentenced the two in the continued absence of Natarajan. Suresh will have to pay £10,000 to the taxman alongside her 12-month suspended jail sentence.

HMRC had launched an investigation into Natarajan after UK Border Agency officers found more than 7,000 kilos of garlic. HM Revenue & Customs later checked shipping records and discovered that imports of garlic had stopped but importations of fresh ginger - which are free of duty - had increased five-fold.

Further checks showed that the temperature in the containers was too cold for ginger, but perfect for garlic, the tax authorities said.

Peter Millroy, of HMRC, said: "Over 100 containers were identified where there were strong grounds to believe that the contents had either been understated or wrongly described."

"These rules are designed to protect legitimate businesses from unfair competition," he added.

About £150,000 in cash was seized by customs officers at Natarajan's property.

His business, Perfect Imports & Exports, was based on an industrial estate in Southall.

Garlic was imported and then stored there, before being sold to wholesalers.

"This is the only prosecution involving garlic in recent years, although we have mounted prosecutions for similar offences involving a wide range of commodities. For example, ring binder mechanisms and industrial pipe fittings," said an HMRC spokesman.

The tax authority explained that pretending the garlic was tax-free ginger saved Natarajan considerable sums.

To protect EU garlic growers, imports from outside the EU are taxed at various rates: 9.6% of the value of fresh or chilled garlic, plus an extra levy of 120 euros per 100 kg imported; 14.4% on frozen garlic; 9.6% on preserved garlic; and 12.8% on dried garlic.

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