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Last Updated: Thursday, 27 July 2006, 16:43 GMT 17:43 UK
Trade that armed the underworld
By Chris Summers
BBC News

Two men at the centre of the largest gun conversion racket ever uncovered by the Metropolitan Police's Operation Trident have been convicted at the Old Bailey.

A third man at the same trial has also been convicted of possessing a prohibited weapon and ammunition.

Paul (left) and Andrew Meekey
Paul (left) and Andrew Meekey were convicted of firearms offences

From the outside it was an unprepossessing little shop, selling camping supplies and military paraphernalia.

But the shop, in Bethnal Green Road, east London, was in fact the front for an operation which provided lethal weapons to hundreds of criminals, not just in the capital, but all over the country.

The man behind the operation was Guner Salih, an avuncular, silver-haired 59-year-old whose failing health occasionally led to delays in his trials.

Salih was convicted along with two other defendants, Paul Meekey and his son Andrew.

They were supplied to the criminal fraternity - whether to be used in bank robberies or to threaten people, or to kidnap people or simply to shoot them
Mark Gadsden

Andrew Meekey, 30, of Lister Road, Leytonstone, and Salih, of Campbell Avenue, Barkingside, Essex, were found guilty of the sale or transfer of prohibited weapons and possession of firearms with intent to cause fear of violence.

Paul Meekey, 60, also of Lister Road, Leytonstone, was found guilty of possession of a prohibited weapon and ammunition, but not guilty of the sale and transfer of prohibited weapons.

The Old Bailey heard Salih had bought hundreds of replica guns, blank-firing pistols and airguns legitimately, converted them into lethal weapons and then sold them to criminals.

He also supplied hollow-tipped ammunition, better known as "dum-dum bullets", which are designed to expand on impact causing devastating injuries.

Andrew Meekey was Salih's partner in the plan.

Mark Gadsden, prosecuting, said: "They were supplied on to criminals, together with ammunition in order at least to put people in fear that unlawful violence would be used against them or others.

"They were supplied to the criminal fraternity - whether to be used in bank robberies or to threaten people, or to kidnap people or simply to shoot them."

Salih claimed throughout he had unwittingly sold blank-firing guns not knowing they were being converted into deadly weapons.

Several guns capable of firing live ammunition were found at his shop but he claimed they were a legacy of the previous owner, his father-in-law, who had died five years earlier.

Gun amnesty

Mr Gadsden told the court: "Amongst other items, he was found to be in possession of two mobile phones, 670 in cash and - down his trousers - a loaded Astra Cub handgun which had the safety catch off and which contained five rounds of ammunition.

"He claimed that he intended to hand this weapon in during the gun amnesty."

But the trial heard that local uniformed officers visited the premises a couple of days before his arrest and he made no mention of the gun or the amnesty.

Smuggled weapons
Weapons were recovered after the gang's arrest

The Old Bailey heard that over a 14-month period Salih bought 372 Walther PPK blank-firing pistols from a wholesaler, but his sales record logged the sale of only 13.

The prosecution claimed the other 359 were given to Stephen Herbert and Gary Beard, who converted them in a makeshift factory they had built at a flat in Sydenham, south-east London, and then gave them back to Salih for sale to criminally minded customers. The profits were shared.

In 2004 Herbert and Beard pleaded guilty to charges of conspiracy to manufacture, sell and transfer more than 400 firearms. They are currently serving nine-year jail sentences.

Ballistics expert Michael Vaughan was asked about a pocket-sized Derringer pistol which was found at Salih's shop.

He said it had been originally designed to fire blanks but had been altered and fitted with a new barrel to enable it to fire live ammunition.

Mr Vaughan was asked to explain the significance of eight rounds of dum-dum bullets.

Devastating injuries

He said: "There is a thin layer of copper over the lead and a hole in the tip. On impact the lead expands and ends up looking like a mushroom."

Dum-dum bullets are banned because of the devastating injuries they can cause.

The Old Bailey also heard from Dennis Targett, a dealer in militaria in Brixton, south London, who was duped into selling Herbert and Beard hundreds of replica guns which they converted into lethal weapons.

Mr Targett said Herbert, who claimed to be a jewellery trader at Bermondsey market, began purchasing one or two PPK blank-firing pistols in early 2002 but said the demand "snowballed" to the point where he bought 64 over one 11-day period.

Under cross-examination he was asked if he was not suspicious of Herbert.

He just said they were very popular on the market
Dennis Targett
Unwitting supplier to Salih

Mr Targett said he was not and added: "He just said they were very popular on the market."

Asked by Salih's barrister if, after Herbert's arrest, he felt "taken in" by him, Mr Targett replied: "Yes. He came over as a nice person."

Mr Targett said the wholesaler he dealt with withdrew a number of the replicas from sale for legal reasons late in 2002 and he said he had now stopped selling all firearms from his shop.

The Violent Crime Reduction Bill, currently going through Parliament, would make it an offence to manufacture, import or sell replica guns.

It would also make it an offence to manufacture, modify or import imitation firearms that do not conform to specifications laid down by the secretary of state.

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