Hawks, Asset Forfeiture Unit swoop on Malabar home
The cars and home of an alleged cigarette smuggler with links to self-confessed tobacco bootlegger Adriano Mazzotti were confiscated by the Asset Forfeiture Unit (AFU) in a dawn blitz in Port Elizabeth yesterday.
Ashraf Laher, 39 – the alleged mastermind behind a multimillion-rand illicit cigarette operation in the Eastern Cape – had his Malabar house and four vehicles worth more than R2.5-million seized by the state.
This follows the arrest of Ashraf and his brother, Araf, 32, together with four others, in October after police seized illicit cigarettes worth R18-million at a number of shops and houses in Port Elizabeth and Uitenhage.
The Tobacco Institute of Southern Africa welcomed the seizure, saying that illicit trade was often linked to organised crime operations including drug trafficking.
In addition to Ashraf’s cars and house being seized, Araf – who lives across the road – was also served with a preservation order.
By midday, officials had served alleged distributors Ismail Abubaker Surti, Imranhusen Suleman Chukundia, Mohammed Irfaan Hasam and Nizam Uddin with preservation orders.
At about 5am the AFU, together with the Hawks, went to Ashraf’s house in Alyssum Road where vehicles were towed away and notice given that his house was seized.
The operation saw flatbed tow trucks parked in the road while state advocate Warren Myburgh arrived at the fortified house and informed Ashraf of the seizures.
A visibly bewildered Ashraf complied while contacting his lawyer.
The house, which police claim doubles as a warehouse for illicit tobacco, is surrounded by an electric fence, with several CCTV cameras around the property.
During the operation, more boxes of cigarettes packed inside a minibus were off-loaded as, according to authorities, the preservation order was only for the vehicle and not its contents.
Two cars and a house were seized by the Hawks and NPA on Monday morning in Malabar. More to follow. pic.twitter.com/H0WaU2PCOb
— HeraldLIVE (@HeraldPE) December 4, 2017
The boxes were off-loaded into the garage before the vehicle was towed away.
Shortly after the bust in the Bay in October, South African cigarette manufacturer Carnilinx’s chief operating officer, Mohammad Sayed, insisted the cigarettes seized – which he said belonged to the company – were legitimate and that the publicity around the arrests of the Laher brothers had led to a “negative stigma [being] attached to Carnilinx”.
Sayed said they were certain the stock would be released after the invoices and paperwork were shown to the authorities.
However, police confirmed yesterday that they still had the stock.
Last month, the Sunday Times revealed ties between Sayed, his Carnilinx business associate Mazzotti and presidential hopeful Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma.
In one photograph, Sayed and Mazzotti are seen posing with Dlamini-Zuma.
Investigative reporter Jacques Pauw’s explosive book The President’s Keepers also claims Mazzotti admitted in an affidavit in 2014 that Carnilinx was complicit in fraud, money laundering and tax evasion.
According to the Companies and Intellectual Property Commission, Mazzotti and Sayed are listed as directors of Carnilinx.
Dlamini-Zuma has denied any direct or substantive relationship with Mazzotti.
Hawks spokeswoman Captain Anelisa Feni said yesterday that of the six people arrested only the Laher brothers had been criminally charged, while the other four were expected to be charged soon.
The Laher brothers are out on R10 000 bail each and are due to appear in the Port Elizabeth Magistrate’s Court on February 23.
During the October raids, provincial police commissioner General Liziwe Ntshinga described the bust as the largest illicit cigarette smuggling and selling operation in the Eastern Cape. Charges against the Laher brothers include fraud, contravention of the Tobacco Products Control Act, contravention of the Value Added Tax Act and contravention of the Customs and Excise Act.
National Prosecuting Authority spokesman Tsepo Ndwalaza said Ashraf had 14 days to provide the high court with proof that the assets were not bought with money made from the sale or distribution of illicit cigarettes.
Ndwalaza said suspicions were raised when it was discovered that the brothers were registered as unemployed but owned assets like cars and houses.
Ndwalaza said the bust came after Ashraf allegedly sold illicit cigarettes from his home to undercover police officials.
“The house has been adapted and modified as a warehouse to facilitate the illicit trade in cigarettes and the spaza shop therein is merely a front,” he said.
Agents then conducted sting operations at six outlets linked to the Laher brothers in Uitenhage.
Police spokeswoman Captain Sandra Janse van Rensburg said the brothers were believed to supply various outlets across the province.
“It must be clarified that the cigarettes themselves are not illegal but the manner in which they were acquired and are sold is what has been brought into question,” she said.
“Allegations include the failure to pay various taxes on these brands, which, in turn, allows manufacturers to sell the product at below-cost prices.”
Janse van Rensburg said the brands confiscated were mostly locally manufactured brands such as JFK and Savannah.
Tobacco Institute chairman Francois van der Merwe said: “We need the government to clamp down on this to save the legal industry.
“Between 2010 and last year, the fiscus lost more than R27-billion due to illicit cigarettes.
“The long-term effect is devastating to the country’s economy and could ultimately result in thousands of job losses, loss of investor confidence and billions of rand in tax revenue losses.”
Van der Merwe described the province as having one of the highest rates of illicit tobacco trade in the country.
“This trade is far larger than just illicit cigarettes, it is one of the ways in which gangs and syndicates fund their operations.”
He said prices as low as R5.50 a packet indicated clearly that taxes were not paid.
“Information suggests that more than 80% of all illicit cigarettes in the country are manufactured in South Africa.
“These manufacturers perform excise manipulation – for example declaring only a small portion of their production while the bulk is undeclared, resulting in duties not being paid and [the cigarettes] therefore sold at ridiculously low prices.
“The minimum collectable tax on a packet of 20 is R16.30.”