TWO former North-East police officers were jailed yesterday for their role in a sophisticated worldwide cigarette smuggling operation.

Gary Thompson and Anthony Lamb were sentenced to six and five years respectively for conspiracy to evade around £11m in excise duty.

The former Cleveland Police officers used their knowledge of law enforcement and forensic techniques in a failed bid to avoid detection, Newcastle Crown Court was told.

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The gang cloned identities of innocent people and hijacked the names of legitimate companies to deceive a shipping agency and the taxman.

A third member of the conspiracy, lorry driver David Lister who transported the illegal shipments from Felixstowe to the North-East and Yorkshire, was locked up for two years.

Jailing them, Judge David Wood said: "One of the principal problems of this type of offending is that it damages corner street traders who are trying to make a living because they lose their businesses and lose their jobs."

Craig Hassall, prosecuting, said the group arranged the importation of 21 large shipping containers from around the world, including ports in Greece, Singapore, Dubai and Turkey.

Seven of these, containing 60 million cigarettes were seized by HM Revenue and Customs officers.

Mr Hassall said the group used hijacked company names to set up premises in Stanley, Langley Park and Coundon, in County Durham, as well as in Middlesbrough, Hartlepool, Sunderland and Yorkshire.

Phone and fax lines were installed, false stationary created and fictitious email addresses were set up.

Thompson, of Burdon Walk, Castle Eden, Hartlepool, and Lister, 49, of Downham Market, Norfolk, had previously pleaded guilty to conspiracy to evade cigarette duty between July 2007 and October 2009.

Mark Stephenson, for Thompson, who had a Porsche and a Mercedes, a five bedroom house, and sent his children to private school, said: "He wishes he never started this endeavour."

Heidi Cotton, for Lister, said he wishes to make a fresh start and has drawn a line under his criminal behaviour.

Lamb, 50, of Ashborne Drive, Coxhoe, County Durham, was found guilty of the same charge after a trial in May.

His barrister, Jeremy Barnett, said he was Thompson’s unwitting “gofer”.

He said: "There is no evidence of any cash benefit, unlike his co-accused."