Six arrested for $15 million illegal tobacco import linked to gang war

Police have arrested six men, some of whom are allegedly connected to a Middle Eastern crime family, for trying to import 10 million illicit cigarettes into Victoria. The cigarettes, which arrived on a cargo ship from Vietnam on February 3, had an estimated value of $15 million and could have evaded millions of dollars in taxes.

The arrests were the result of a 16-month investigation by the Victorian Joint Organised Crime Taskforce, which comprises officers from Victoria Police, the Australian Federal Police and the Australian Border Force. The taskforce said some of the men worked for freight and transport logistics companies in trusted positions and used their access to internal shipping and transport systems to manipulate data and avoid detection.

Acting Assistant Commissioner Raegan Stewart said the arrests had dismantled an alleged criminal syndicate and their corrupt trusted insiders. “It will be alleged in court that the accused are what we call ‘trusted insiders’. We will allege they had access to internal shipping and transport systems and attempted to use their positions to evade law enforcement protection,” she said. “These arrests are significant.”

Illegal tobacco trade fuels violent conflict

Police said the group was linked to a Melbourne-based Middle Eastern organised crime syndicate, suspected of being behind a series of illicit tobacco imports into Victoria. Sources said some of the men were allegedly linked to the Haddara crime family, which has controlled the illicit tobacco market for years and is currently involved in a battle for control with an insurgent group led by Iraq-based crime boss Kazem “Kaz” Hamad, whose gang has been linked to two murders and dozens of firebombings.

Victoria Police Commander Paul O’Halloran said the profits from trafficking illegal tobacco funded organised crime and contributed to the conflict now playing out through firebombings throughout the city. The men arrested on Wednesday have not been linked to any firebombing attacks. “The arrests are very important because we know that we need to tackle this particular issue of illicit tobacco that funds and fuels organised crime, transnational crime, international crime, [and crime] down to a state level,” he said. “This leads to, obviously, the recent spate of arson attacks within Victoria that fuels extortion, [and] personal feuds amongst organised criminals, which we are seeing that played out in the streets today.”

Charges and court appearances

The six men faced the Melbourne Magistrates Court on Wednesday and were charged with various offences related to the importation of tobacco products with the intention of defrauding the revenue, which carries a maximum penalty of 10 years’ imprisonment. A Point Cook man, 45, is accused of being the facilitator of the syndicate, while a Fraser Rise man, 35, is accused of using his position in the transport industry to assist the syndicate. Three other men, from Truganina, Altona Meadows and Craigieburn, are accused of being involved in the importation and distribution of illicit tobacco throughout Victoria. A Tarneit man, 40, was charged with alleged proceeds of crime offences and failing to comply with a court order. Their cases have been adjourned until July.

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