Seven members of a smuggling gang who illegally imported 20m cigarettes disguised as toys through a Suffolk port have been jailed.
The operation, described as complex and sophisticated, was planned to avoid £3.3m in importation duty, Ipswich Crown Court was told.
The group were caught at the Port of Felixstowe in November 2009.
They received sentences of between two and four-and-a-half years for conspiracy to evade excise duty.
Paul O’Meara, 48, of Sudbury, Suffolk, was described as the “lynchpin” of the scheme which was bankrolled by 47-year-old Robert Doran, a millionaire businessman who lived in Dubai.
A third man, Patrick Gray, 53, of Hertford, helped provide the set-up cost of the operation, estimated at about £200,000.
All three men admitted conspiracy to evade excise duty. They were each ordered to serve four years and six months in prison.
Mark Paltenghi, prosecuting, said: “An international smuggling operation of this kind would require meticulous planning at every stage.
“It also required a significant up-front cost.”
The court heard the group decided the illicit cargo needed to be something bulky but innocent so they described the containers as toys.
The men shipped the cigarettes from Dubai through Hong Kong rather than a direct route to the UK, to avoid suspicion, Mr Paltenghi said.
Martin Cleland, 45, of Hornchurch; Mark Sadgrove, 39, of Loughton; Wayne Stock 38, of Chelmsford, and Matthew Neale 44, of Harlow, all in Essex, were described as “foot soldiers” for the operation.
They were found guilty of conspiracy to evade excise duty after and trial. Cleland received four years and six months; Sadgrove, two and a half years and Stock and Neale two years.
The group had been placed under surveillance by HM Revenue and Customs (HMRC) and the Serious and Organised Crime Agency (SOCA).
After the hearing, Paul Barton, assistant director of criminal investigation for HRMC, said: “Cheap tobacco products can often seem like an attractive offer.
“However, the truth is these sales are unlicensed and unregulated.”