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Last Updated: Monday, 17 September 2007, 22:43 GMT 23:43 UK
Viagra plotters' chance downfall
By Jonathan Josephs
BBC News, Kingston Crown Court

Viagra
Most of the fake pills were sold online

Perhaps the strangest thing about the trial of eight men and one woman for conspiring to supply counterfeit medicines was that some of them only met each other for the first time in the dock of Kingston Crown Court.

As this lengthy trial developed from the scheduled 12 weeks to a shade under nine months the defendants of what the prosecution alleged to be a global conspiracy got to know each other "quite well".

They were often seen chatting merrily to each other both in the dock and outside the courtroom.

These new friendships were formed during a case which was rooted in the backstreet factories of China, India and Pakistan where counterfeit medicines, rip-offs of household western names, such as Pfizer's Viagra or Eli Lilly's Cialis are produced illegally and in huge quantities.

UK raids

Gary Haywood was the link between these factories and his co-conspirators.

It was the chance interception by UK customs officers of a parcel containing 12,000 fake Viagra tablets and addressed to Haywood that eventually led to a series of raids in London and Leicestershire and criminal charges against the nine defendants in this trial.

The prosecution case alleged a sophisticated network whereby the counterfeit medicines were repackaged as they were shipped by courier from one country to another and the accused passed details of orders and shipments to each other by e-mail.

This use of modern technology allowed members of the conspiracy to keep at arms-length from each other.

A complicated trail of paperwork and computer documents was alleged to show how the defendants attempted to cover-up their tracks and their multi-million pound profits.

Aladdin's cave

The scale of the counterfeiting was exposed when Haywood subsequently boasted to undercover investigators that "within 6-8 weeks I will be able to supply up to a million tablets".

At the same time he was supplying Ashish Halai, the lynchpin of the operation, with thousands upon thousands of pills to ship abroad.

The Medicine and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) duly raided Haywood's Leicestershire home and found what they have described as an "Aladdin's cave of fake medicines" worth over 1.5m.

Haywood was found guilty of all 11 counts against him including two of money laundering.

The bulk of the pills were sold online to both wholesale and retail customers, primarily in the US and the Bahamas.

The five who were convicted were ultimately relying on the embarrassment of individuals at obtaining the prescriptions they needed by conventional means to make themselves vast financial rewards.

Biggest ever prosecution

Some of the defendants expressed anger and frustration about the length and process of the trial, claiming the MHRA had failed to investigate their involvement as thoroughly as they could have done.

This is a claim the MHRA say is disproved by the huge length of time between their first scent of a criminal plot and the start date of the trial - more than four years.

But it can hardly be surprising that the trial, which was the biggest prosecution that the MHRA have ever been involved in, lasted as long as it did when one considers factors such as the three weeks that Dr George Patino spent giving evidence in his own defence.

Genuine Viagra label
The gang copied genuine Viagra labels

The sharp-suited Mexican businessman was further cross-examined for another two weeks.

The man that the prosecution alleged to be known online as the "King of Viagra" had lengthy answers for every question that was put to him.

So perhaps it was no surprise that the jury were unable to reach verdicts on any of the nine charges faced by the wholesale medicine dealer from Guadalajara, Mexico.

Dr Patino admitted to the BBC that he felt "nervous" as the jury spent 84 hours and nine minutes considering their verdicts. He added that he "didn't think they'd [the jury] find the others guilty".

University graduate

His performance in the dock was in stark contrast to the four defendants who declined to give evidence on their own behalf.

One of those, Rajendra Shah, argued that he didn't need to because he had entered a not guilty plea and the evidence was there for all to see in "black and white".

The jury was unable to reach verdicts on the two counts he faced.

The confident and almost cavalier attitude displayed by some of the others in the dock continued even after guilty verdicts had been returned.

Such decisions did not take away the swagger from the walk of the youngest of the convicted, 25-year-old university graduate Ashwin Patel.

The former business studies student was convicted on six counts including unauthorised use of trademarks and conspiring to "place a medicinal product on the market", he was cleared on two similar charges and one of wholesale dealing of medicine.

UK 'lynchpin'

Conversely Zahid Mirza's head dropped as the tall and erudite foreman of the jury returned five guilty verdicts against him; he was cleared on a sixth.

The quiet and respectable-looking middle-aged businessman left court looking as if the weight of the world was on his shoulders.

Mr Mirza failed to appear the next day, as the jury continued its deliberations, and has not been seen since despite the judge issuing an all-ports alert for his arrest.

And then there is the "lynchpin" of the operation, 33-year-old Kenya-born Ashish Halai.

Little is known about this elusive figure and his wife, both of whom pleaded guilty to some of the charges they faced as this prolonged trial was getting under way.

Neither had been seen between then and Monday when Ashish Halai was sentenced to four-and-a-half years in jail and disqualified from being a company director for 10 years.

Nayna Halai received 80 hours community service for her part in the events.


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