Three men behind a travel firm have been prosecuted for a multi-million pound fraud where they falsely claimed to be licensed to sell package trips to Mecca for the Hajj pilgrimage.
Leicester-based Al Shafqat Hajj fraudulently used stationary containing the symbols of both Atol and Iata in its business specialising in selling trips to the holy Muslim site.
Raja Shafqat Hussain (62), his son Raja Akeel Hussain (31) and son-in-law Khuram Shahzad (30) were sentenced at Nottingham Crown Court, having pleaded guilty to offences under the Fraud Act 2006, and for breaching the Package Travel Regulations at an earlier hearing, LeicesterLive reported.
Customers also complained to Leicester City Council Trading Standards and to the Association of British Hujjaj (Pilgrims) UK, about “poor quality, dirty and dangerous” accommodation and transport.
Raja Shafqat Hussain pleaded guilty to five offences under the Fraud Act 2006 and one offence under the Package Travel, Package Holidays and Package Tours Regulations 1992.
Raja Akeel Hussain admitted to four offences under the Fraud Act 2006 and one offence under the Package Travel, Package Holidays and Package Tours Regulations 1992.
Shahzad pleaded guilty to four offences under the Fraud Act 2006.
In addition, both Raja Shafqat Hussain and Raja Akeel Hussain pleaded guilty to being in possession of forged Atol licence on June 16, 2016, as well as operating the business between January 1, 2014, and August 31, 2016, selling travel packages without the required protection for customers.
Both Hussains were handed two year prison sentences, each suspended for two years.
The older man was banned from being a director of a company for ten years and his son for banned for eight years.
Akeel Hussain was also ordered to carry out 200 hours’ of unpaid work in the community.
Shahzad was given a two-year community order involving a requirement of 200 hours’ unpaid work, and disqualified from being the director of a company for a period of five years.
The court heard that Shafqat Hussain had set up the business about 20 years ago, however, the judge accepted that his son Akeel Hussain had assumed a leading role and was the “prime mover” in the fraud.
The court heard that the offences took place between October 2013 and June 2016 after the business got into financial difficulties.
They included the fraudulent use of Atol and Iata-branded stationary and making false representations to customers about being licensed by Atol and accredited by Iata.
During this period, the firm fraudulently sold Hajj packages worth £1.4 million, and similar packages for other Islamic pilgrimages to Saudi Arabia worth an estimated £1.1 million, to more than 200 customers.
Packages cost £3,500 per person and included the cost of flights, travel, visa applications and hotel accommodation.
The men pleaded guilty to the offences in February, but sentencing was delayed after both the Hussains applied to vacate their original guilty pleas, claiming they had received poor legal instructions.
Shafqat Hussain also claimed that he didn’t have a clear understanding of English.
Their applications were dismissed by a judge in August 2018, and they were bailed until the sentencing hearing.
All defendants subsequently applied to the court to vary their bail conditions to enable them to travel abroad, which were also denied.
Judge Timothy Spencer QC said the defendants provided “squalid and substandard” packages to pilgrims.
He said: “You were exploiting their faith and you are a disgrace to the religion that you espouse.
“For many, these trips should have been life-changing religious experience but quickly turned into a nightmare.”
Ben Mills, prosecuting, said: “Al Shafqat Hajj Ltd falsely claimed that its products had been endorsed by Atol, which protects travellers should the company fold, and also advertised itself as being an Iata approved travel agent.
“Despite repeated warnings from Leicester Trading Standards, however, it continued to display and advertise Atol and Iata on company stationary, correspondence, business cards and documentation issued to customers.”
He said the company tried to deceive customers and authorities by setting up an almost identical-looking firm named Al Shafqat Haji, where the final ‘j’ was deliberately and confusingly replaced with an ‘i’.
“Customers would pay money to Al Shafqat Hajj but the cash would be syphoned off into Al Shafqat Haji, meaning the company would have no funds should it go into liquidation,” Mr Mills said
“Consumers were beguiled into believing they had this protection and would be refunded or repatriated should anything happen. But the reality was very different.”
Photographic evidence recorded by pilgrims travelling with Al Shafqat Hajj showed “shoddy and substandard” hotel accommodation that included rooms with exposed electrical wiring; sweat-stained mattresses; dirty bed linen, and “disgusting” toilets and bathrooms.
In mitigation, Joe Hingston, representing the company and Akeel Hussain, said no customers had actually lost money as a result of the fraud.
While accepting his client’s claim to be the “prime mover” in the fraud, he said: “This company provided packages for hundreds of pilgrims.
“But only five complaints were identified and relied on in this prosecution, and some of those were repeat customers.
“Clearly they didn’t feel that the business was substandard.”
Mr Hingston said that the business was not set up to defraud customers but got into financial difficulties.
He added that because some parts of the packages were bought separately from other providers, for example flights, the firm assumed that pilgrims would be “covered in other ways” should anything go wrong.
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