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Three people have been jailed for a total of 10 years for their involvement in a multi-million pound software counterfeiting ring.

The trio, who were convicted on March 16 for conspiracy to defraud Microsoft, sat impassively in the dock as Her Honour Judge Pearlman, passed stiff sentences which reflected their involvement in a fraud that netted them an estimated £1.5 million.

"This was a conspiracy aggravated by the clever devices you used to deceive and the fact you continued the operation after being arrested," Judge Pearlman said. "You were all playing for high stakes."

The Judge sentenced the gang to sentences which she said reflected the serious nature of the offence, as well as acting as a deterrent to others. She also suggested that companies who suffered loses due to the counterfeit operation were likely to lose staff as a result. Among the gang's victims were St Albans City District Council in Hertfordshire which unwittingly bought thousands of pounds of software from the counterfeiters.

The gang's mastermind, married father-of-three Sikander Qureshi, 55, of Stanmore, north London was sentenced to 4 1/2 years in prison for conspiracy to defraud. Zafar Ahmed, 40, from East Ham in east London was sentenced to two-and-a-half years for the same offence, with half his sentence suspended.

Shaheen Parveen, 42, from Kingsbury, north west London received a four year jail term for fraud with 3 months to be served concurrently for attempting to pervert the course of justice. Her brother Babar Manzoor, 25, jumped bail before fleeing to his native Pakistan.

Investigators stumbled onto the gang's activities after Customs officers at Heathrow got a lucky break and intercepted a package full of fake MS software, sent from a business address in Thailand to Qureshi's accountancy firm in Shoreditch High Street, London.

The parcel was sent to Qureshi but when it arrived Hackney trading standards team swooped and grabbed counterfeit software CDs, and a shrink-wrapping machine. The National Crime Squad joined in the investigation and caught the team on CCTV camera visiting their lock-up.

Raids on the Ahmed's and Parveen's homes and the storage units revealed an Aladdin's cave of counterfeiting material. Thousands of counterfeit CDs, various packaging material and Microsoft authenticity certificates - which had been stolen by armed raiders from a printing factory in Scotland, were recovered.

Various companies had been set up by the gang to market and sell the fake software, but these not be linked to the operation's ringleader Qureshi, who claimed in court to be a good friend of the husband of Pakistan's deposed leader Benazir Bhutto (Asif Ali Zardari). His wife appears on the Asian TV station ZTV.

Even after the gang was first arrested at the end of 1998 they still tried to carry on their illegal operation but this only resulted in them been arrested again and the confiscation of more evidence by police.

Qureshi and Parveen had been held in custody after breaking bail restrictions. Police caught them hiding in a wardrobe at Parveen's house.

Bank records suggest the gang made more than £1.5 million in profits but only £96,000 in cash was ever recovered. ®

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