A cigarette smuggling ring has become active at Chattogram Shah Amanat International Airport upon the resumption of international flights – following a longtime closure to contain Covid-19.
Cartons of cigarettes are being smuggled into the country through this airport, from Middle Eastern countries, despite several failed attempts with the intervention of the Customs and National Security Intelligence (NSI).
Customs and NSI officials at the airport recently foiled three attempts to smuggle 979 cartons of the contraband, by seven passengers of three flights, within the last seven days. The market price of seized cigarettes is estimated at Tk19.58 lakh as each carton is Tk2,000.
Airport sources said the officials, on September 15, seized 550 cartons of cigarettes from three passengers of BG flight number 148, coming from Dubai.
Meanwhile, 95 cartons were seized from Md Abdur Rahim, a passenger of Air Arabia flight G 9-521, coming from Sharjah on September 21, and 334 cartons of cigarettes were seized from three passengers of FlyDubai flight FZ-589, coming from Dubai on September 22.
Chattogram Airport manager wing commander Sarwar-e-Zaman told The Business Standard that the airport authorities, intelligence agencies and customs officials remain vigilant and active to stop smuggling here.
Chattogram Customs House's airport unit deputy commissioner Roksana Khatun said the luggage of every returnee migrant is scanned. So, there is no opportunity to bring in cigarettes or other contraband.
Refuting the allegation of links between smugglers and customs officials, Roksana Khatun said no official at the customs department is involved with such acts that tarnish the country's image.
A senior official of the intelligence agency's airport unit said the customs department's duty is to seize the smuggled cigarettes. "If we have any information about it, we seize it and hand it over to the customs department."
Chattogram Customs House's airport and air freight unit data shows that 17,029 cartons of cigarettes were seized at the airport in 2019. The market price of the seized cigarettes stands at around Tk3.41 crore, while 13,072 cartons were seized in 2018 – the market price of which is Tk2.61 crore.
Regular flight operations on international routes had been suspended on March 26 due to Covid-19. Flight operations restarted from July 6, carrying passengers on the Chattogram-Dubai route via Dhaka.
Sources said Benson, Easy, Easy Light, 303, 555, and Dunhill brand cigarettes smuggled in from Middle Eastern countries – like Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Dubai and Oman – through the airport, are taken straight to Riazuddin Bazar in the port city. From here, cigarettes go to retail shops across the country.
Customs sources said a passenger can carry a carton of cigarettes without paying customs duty under the baggage rule. If anyone wants to carry more, he or she has to pay 800% customs duty.
As the government imposes higher duties in the budget every year, the gang smuggles cigarettes, by air, from foreign countries, evading duties. The syndicate is able to sell the cigarettes on local markets for relatively cheaper prices due to tax evasion.
Sources concerned said the gang smuggles cigarettes from the Middle East through this airport using home-bound migrants. Passengers are lured into carrying the cigarettes, for free plane tickets, by the gang.
A review of seized cigarette consignments at different times at the airport shows that the passengers allegedly involved in smuggling are the inhabitants of the Fatikchari, Hathazari, Raujan, and Boalkhali upazilas of Chattogram.