Two men who almost exclusively sold illicit tobacco products from a street corner village store left court with suspended sentence orders.

But former shop tenant and proprietor Farzad Moradi and his assistant, Sartip Sharefbayiani, are now to be subject of crime proceeds inquiries to see what funds or assets can be confiscated from them.

Both Moradi, 29, formerly of Meath Street, in Middlesbrough, and his 36-year-old co-accused, now living in Silkeborg, in Denmark, admitted three trademark charges each brought by Durham County Council’s licensing department.

They relate to a four-month period that Moradi operated the Lifestyle Express store in Blackhall Colliery, in 2021, during which Sharefbayiani worked at the premises.

The Northern Echo: Lifestyle Express store in Middle Street, Blackhall, which was made subject of a temporary closure

The offences related to the pair conspiring to sell tobacco products bearing unauthorised trademarks, contravening packaging regulations and which also failed to carry standard Government health warnings.

Peter Sabiston, prosecuting, told Durham Crown Court that acting on intelligence, test purchases were made at the Middle Street premises in which tobacco products were bought which carried Luxembourg duty stamps, which were not in correct packaging or bearing the standard health warning.

On another visit the test purchase officer noticed the trader going to a door behind the counter, entering a rear store room, and emerging with a brown paper bag containing hand rolling tobacco.

Observation was also made with cars seen arriving in the lane behind the premises and multiple bags were seen being transferred from one vehicle to another.

Warrants were obtained enabling the shop, two addresses on Teesside linked to the pair and a car to be searched.

A hold-all was recovered containing Benson and Hedges products and hand-rolling tobacco.

Mr Sabiston said in a search of the shop legitimate products were also found to be sold.

The court heard that while the exact amounts made by the sale of illicit products could not be accurately stipulated it was thought to be upwards of £117,000, but in the months leading up to the surveillance operation it could have been up to £230,000.

Mr Sabiston said an aggravating feature was that counterfeit tobacco products can also prove more harmful than those sold legitimately.

The Northern Echo:

Chris Morrison, for Moradi, described the “enterprise” as, “completely lacking any sophistication or guile,” by either defendant, who are both of Kurdish background, for whom English is only a second language.

Mr Morrison told the court: “He was managing a struggling shop.

“He was visited by a Romanian gentleman who told him they (the illicit tobacco products) were available at a hefty discount if he wished to take them.

“He did so as he was behind with his rent.

“He acknowledges it was a short-cut and an illegal thing that he did.

“He does have to accept responsibility for what was found.

“But a lot of small traders were in difficulty at that time, after the Covid period.

“What happened was this was an attempt to shore up and keep the business afloat.

“It folded in 2021 because it couldn’t recover.

“He had to bite the bullet and close the shop.”

Mr Morrison said Moradi, who came to this country as a refugee, hopes to be allowed to permanently settle in the UK.

He added that the defendant, who is of previous good character and, “not frightened of a day’s work”, has taken advantage of an offer of employment in Hampshire, which does not provide him with a great income, but does carry with it free board and lodging.

Katie Spence, for Sharefbayiani, said his basis of plea was that when he went to work for his co-accused he was unaware many of the products being sold were not legitimate, but in time he did come to realise it and carried on, although he did not benefit from their sale.

She said he now lives in Denmark, where he has found work as a welder.

But she said he has found it costly to travel “backwards and forwards” to the UK to attend the court proceedings, in Durham.

Judge James Adkin told both Mr Morrison and Ms Spence that their clients would not be receiving immediate prison sentences.

He said the test purchases demonstrated there was, “active and lucrative” business undertaken selling counterfeit tobacco products.

“Other evidence suggests there wasn’t much else being sold from that shop.”

Judge Adkin said the value of the products seized was more than £62,000, which, if legitimate, would have a value of £117,000.

The judge said the impact had to be considered by the sale of illicit tobacco in small communities, particularly on legitimate traders.

He added: “I’m given to understand that neither of you has committed this type of offence before and you are entitled to maximum credit for your guilty pleas.”

Judge Adkin passed a 12-month prison sentence on Moradi, who he said played the “leading role”, but suspended it for two years, during which he must carry out 120-hours’ unpaid work.

Sherafbayiani was given a six-month sentence, suspended for 18 months.

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Trader and assistant sold illicit tobacco products at Blackhall store

Lifestyle Express in Blackhall Colliery has been closed

Blackhall Colliery shopkeeper convicted of illegal tobacco offences ordered to do unpaid work

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The judge said as the defendant no longer resides in the UK he would not add any additional community punishment in his case.

Inquiries will now be made to see how much can be confiscated from the defendants under the Proceeds of Crime Act.

A crime proceeds management hearing will take place at the court on Friday July 12.