Prison terms for illegal cigarette manufacturers

Prison terms for illegal cigarette manufacturers
An Austrian court. File photo: APA/Pfarrhofer
In what the judge described as the largest financial criminal case ever tried in Austria, the regional court of Wels (Upper Austria), convicted five out of six defendants on Wednesday for illegally manufacturing cigarettes.

They were sentenced to jail terms of between one and four and a half years and fines of between €20-85 million.

The six accused were charged with the production of a total of 786 million cigarettes worth €265 million between 2002-2004 in illegal factories in Brixen im Thale in Tyrol and Thalgau in Salzburg.

Estimated damages attributed to individual defendants ranged in the hundreds of millions, and for the ringleaders up to €425 million.

The scandal was uncovered in the winter of 2006 when German customs officials discovered two illegal cigarette factories in Koblenz and Cologne.

The operators were initially unknown, but investigations revealed the boss was resident in Tyrol.

Local customs investigators eventually discovered the man was a 69-year-old from Upper Austria.

The suspect is said to have initially operated a cigarette factory in Brixen im Thale, before transferring the Bulgarian-made machines to Thalgau and later to Germany.

According to prosecutors, the cigarettes produced were mainly sold in Germany and Greece, as well as on the black market in tobacconists.

The man has been questioned in court for the past nine weeks, along with five others accused of involvement.

One defendant was acquitted on Wednesday, while the others were sentenced to prison terms of four and a half, three, two, and in two cases one year. In addition, they were given fines ranging from €20 to €85 million.

According to the court, the custodial penalties cannot exceed 24 months. One defendant asked for time to think and four others immediately filed objections. The judgements are therefore not legally binding.

According to the judge, the ringleader has forced the case to drag on for years, "taking every opportunity to derail the process."

The charges were made years ago, along with a lawsuit for fraud, embezzlement and a multi-million dollar corporate bankruptcy. The case never came to trial however because the accused repeatedly claimed to be suffering from dementia and Alzheimer's.

Finally an expert testified that the man was indeed fully capable of being tried and he was arrested in January 2014.

On the first day of the first trial he remained motionless in his wheelchair. The trial was then carried on in his absence while he waited for the verdict in his cell.

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