Tanzanian-flagged cargo ship has been impounded in Greece after it was nabbed with a large consignment of contraband cigarettes worth over 6 million euros (15 billion/-) in taxes alone.
More than 3,000 boxes of contraband fags were found in the bust involving the cargo vessel christened ‘Golendri’ over the weekend, with at least six Ukrainian crew members said to have been arrested by Greek authorities.
The Greek coast guard said it seized a total of 1,557,200 smuggled cigarette packs from the ship which was immobilised as it was sailing south of the island of Crete on Friday.
The loss of taxes and unpaid duties for the state from this huge amount of contraband is calculated at 6,019,186.94 million euros, authorities said, without revealing the actual value of the haul.
The Greek government estimates that it is losing close to 1 billion euros every year from the sale of contraband tobacco and cigarettes.
According to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), about 600 billion cigarettes are smuggled worldwide each year, making it a $30 billion illicit industry.
Cigarettes are the world’s most smuggled legal product, with much of this activity a result of the sin taxes nations use to control the spread of addictive drugs that are legal.
High taxation generates shadow markets in places ranging from Africa, Europe, Asia, Latin America to the United States, experts say.
The ‘Golendri’ left from Bar, in Montenegro, and was heading to Tobruk, Libya when it was located by Greek authorities sailing south of Crete with its navigation lights and automatic identification system (AIS) turned off.
Soon after, the ship stopped its engines 1.5 nautical miles off the coast of Sfakia, a mountainous area in the south-western part of Greece.
The Greek coast guard, using a thermal camera and radar, saw a speed boat approaching the freighter and starting to unload the illegal cargo.
A coast guard vessel intervened, chased and stopped the ship and led it to the port of Heraklion, where police recorded the cargo.
The six arrested Ukrainians are expected to face criminal charges in a Greek court.
Maritime records show that the ‘Golendri’, with an International Maritime Organisation (IMO) registration number 7045683, is a general cargo ship built in 1971 and currently sailing under the flag of Tanzania. The vessel's gross tonnage is 1,160 tonnes.
Other Tanzanian-flagged vessels have in the past been accused of engaging in criminal activity including flouting international trade sanctions against Iran and North Korea.
It was reported in 2012 that a shipping agent based in Dubai had reflagged 36 Iranian oil tankers with the Tanzanian flag without the country's knowledge and approval.
Tanzania launched an investigation over the matter and asked the United States and European Union to help it verify the origin of the tankers flying the country's flag.
Reflagging ships masks their ownership, which could make it easier for Iran to obtain insurance and financing for the cargoes, as well as find buyers for the shipments without attracting attention from the US and European Union.
The National Iranian Tanker Company (NITC) changed the names and flags of many of its oil tankers ahead of the European Union ban, part of sweeping economic measures aimed at pressuring Tehran to end its nuclear programme.
The ships flying Tanzania's flag were re-flagged by Zanzibar, which has claimed it was misled by its Dubai-based agent, Philtex, and would end its contract with that firm.
US sanctions have kept Iran's major trading partners from buying Iranian crude. The European Union banned Iranian oil imports as well as the provision of insurance for vessels carrying Iranian oil.