Two British men have been found guilty of smuggling a number of firearms, including sub-machine guns and assault rifles, into the UK.

Harry Shilling, 26, and Michael Defraine, 30, were convicted on two charges each at the Old Bailey. Three other members of the gang had previously pled guilty for their role in the smuggling operation.

Two other defendants, Jennifer Arthy, 42, and John Smale, 58, were cleared.

The jury at the Old Bailey heard how Shilling and Defraine purchased weapons worth more than £100,000 in the summer of 2015 on the French black market at Boulogne-sur-Mer. The pair then smuggled the firearms into Kent aboard a small boat named the MV Albernina, and had intended to sell them onto criminal gangs.

However, the Police had been monitoring the gang’s communications after breaking the PGP encryption on their Blackberry smartphones, and intercepted the men before they managed to sell or hide any of the weapons.

The cache of guns seized by police included 22 Czech VZ-58 assault rifles, similar in type to the AK-47, and nine Skorpion machine pistols, along with 58 magazines and more than a thousand rounds of ammunition – a haul the NCA described as “the largest seizure of automatic weapons ever made on the UK mainland”.

The firearms had been previously deactivated under license by a specialist firm in Slovakia, but had since been reactivated before being acquired by the Shilling group.

Discussing the case, NCA Head of Specialist Operations, Rob Lewin, said:

“This seizure of automatic weapons was the largest ever made by the NCA – and, we believe, the largest ever on the UK mainland. These are hugely powerful firearms, and have, as the prosecution stated in court, a ‘truly devastating capability’.

“We cannot say for certain what the organised crime group would have done with the weapons had they not been stopped. But the evidence pointed to them not being afraid to use guns themselves to expand their influence. They wanted to move up in the criminal world from regional to international gangsters.

“The group was motivated by profit, so we can only speculate that some of these weapons would have been sold to whoever had the means to pay the asking price.

“In bringing them to justice we have had fantastic support from our partners at Kent Police, the Crown Prosecution Service and Border Force.

“I have no doubt that together we have protected the public and saved lives.”

The UK saw a small but significant 4% rise in gun crime in the twelve months up to September last year, according to the Office for National Statistics (ONS). This increase is believed to reflect a rise in gang violence, particularly in London where gun crime saw a 10% rise over the same period.

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