scales of justice

A gang has been jailed for film tax relief fraud, after trying to defraud the taxman of almost £2.8 million by claiming to be making a Hollywood blockbuster called 'A Landscape of Lies'. The gang even went to the trouble of making a film after their arrest - in order to cover their tracks.

But while the critics were convinced, the taxman wasn't, and neither was the court - which found all five guilty.


The scam

Gang leader Bashar Al-Issa, 34, of Maida Vale, London, along with Aoife Madden, of Northern Ireland, Tariq Hassan, of Essex, Ian Sherwood and Osama Al Baghdady, both of Manchester, owned Evolved Pictures. They claimed that they were making a blockbuster film, complete with Hollywood A-listers, on a £19 million budget - funded by a Jordanian company.

The gang submitted claims to HMRC, explaining that they had spent millions of pounds on the film: paying actors and film set managers. Under the tax relief regime for film-makers, they reclaimed £1.5 million in VAT, and nearly £1.3 million in film tax credit claims.

They received £796,000 in public money, after the tax authorities saw eight minutes of footage. However, unfortunately for the gang, HMRC didn't take the entire story at face value, and decided to check out a few of the company's claims. They found that the work had not been done and most of the so-called suppliers and film studios had never heard of the gang.

Plot twist

In a bizarre plot twist, after the gang was arrested, they came up with an elaborate plan to cover their tracks - by actually shooting a film on a shoestring called 'A Landscape of Lies' - featuring a number of TV personalities - including Loose Women presenter Andrea McLean, EastEnders' Marc Bannerman (who played Gianni di Marco), and Hollyoaks actress Christina Bailey.

Instead of the multi-million pound blockbuster, the gang spent just £84,000 on the shoot.

Strangely, despite going straight to DVD, the film was well-received. The story of a Gulf War veteran seeking justice for a murdered comrade won a Silver Ace award at last year's Las Vegas Film Festival.

However, the taxman remained unconvinced. John Pointing, Assistant Director of Criminal Investigation at HMRC, said: "This gang thought they could exploit rules for genuine British filmmakers and thieve from the public purse for their own gain. They were wrong as HMRC will not stand by and let that happen."

Jailed

The court was similarly unimpressed. Judge Juliet May QC said: "This false project was the basis for three reclaims of repayment of VAT and one claim for Film Tax Credit, with another in preparation at the time of arrest. Documentation was uniformly false and misleading, designed to make it look like a £19.6m film project was underway when of course there was nothing of the sort."

She said the actors and production crew were the 'innocents' of the plot.

She sentenced Al-Issa to six and a half years in prison, Madden to four years and eight months, Hassan and Al Baghdady to four and a half years, and Sherwood (who allowed his offices to be used for the fraud) to three and a half years.