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Man jailed after wielding imitation firearm at Canterbury High Street, with girls seeking refuge at the Abode hotel

A man who wielded a gun-shaped cigarette lighter on Halloween, leaving innocent bystanders in Canterbury city centre terrified, has been jailed.

In the space of just 12 minutes, Esmatullah Sharfi frightened two girls into seeking refuge in Abode hotel where the receptionist was also terrified, robbed a 17-year-old of £10, and put a bubble tearoom worker in fear for her life as she stared directly down the barrel of the fake firearm.

Esmatullah Sharfi has been jailed at Canterbury Crown Court
Esmatullah Sharfi has been jailed at Canterbury Crown Court

While the item was later discovered to be a lighter, a judge said the 31-year-old’s "brazen and public" use of the imitation weapon was intended to cause his victims to fear it was real.

Canterbury Crown Court heard police were first alerted to a gunman in the High Street at 5.53pm on October 31 when two girls reported being followed by a man who had brandished the weapon from his waistband.

Prosecutor Rebecca Steels said the pair hid in Abode hotel where, through the glass entrance, receptionist Neelam Bains saw Sharfi wielding the item.

"He was waving the gun around and pointing it through the door. Ms Bains had initially thought it was a gun and described being terrified but she later realised it was a cigarette lighter," Ms Steels told the court.

Sharfi, an Afghanistan national who came to the UK seeking asylum, continued down the High Street before going into nearby Ding Tea and confronting a member of staff at the counter.

"She said he smiled at her in a very unnerving way and then produced the firearm from his waist area," continued the prosecutor.

"He pointed this directly into her face and she described seeing down the round barrel. She believed this was a real gun and felt in immediate danger.

"She hid under the counter and called for her colleague to come and help. She said she felt really traumatised by what happened, she was frightened for her life, she did not know what the man was capable of and it caused her to feel very scared."

Sharfi then left the tearoom, bravely followed by a teenage customer who had seen his strange behaviour and the staff member’s reaction to him.

However, although the gunman was initially walking away, he then circled round and back to target the youth.

Two girls fled into the Abode hotel in Canterbury after spotting Esmatullah Sharfi with an imitation firearm- which they believed to be real. Picture: Abode
Two girls fled into the Abode hotel in Canterbury after spotting Esmatullah Sharfi with an imitation firearm- which they believed to be real. Picture: Abode

"He pulled the imitation firearm out of his pocket. The customer believed it was a real gun and it made him freeze. The defendant then stopped right next to him and demanded money," said Ms Steels.

The court heard the teen, fearing for his safety with the gun pointed at him, handed over cash before walking away in a "shaken and traumatised" state and calling police.

Sharfi was still in possession of the gun lighter when he was arrested at 6.05pm.

Phil Rowley, defending, said his client fled his native country out of fear, leaving behind his parents and two siblings, and arrived in the UK in October last year after "a lengthy journey."

At the time of the gun incident, he was subject to a community order for theft, spoke little or no English, was living in temporary accommodation in east Kent while still waiting for his asylum application to be processed, and had spent the day smoking cannabis and drinking alcohol with a friend in Ashford.

Describing Sharfi as "diffident, wary and slightly distrustful", Mr Rowley said it had been "a challenge" to explore his background, adding he had limited, if any, recollection of what happened when he returned to Canterbury that night.

But of the "unnerving smile" seen by the tearoom worker, Mr Rowley told the court that was "not inconsistent" with how he was greeted himself by Sharfi.

"Although that witness would have been extremely troubled by what was happening to her and interpreted that smile in a particular way, it may simply be his presentation more generally," explained the lawyer.

"But he is at a loss to explain how those events occurred."

Sharfi, of no fixed address, pleaded guilty to robbery and three offences of possessing an imitation firearm with intent to cause fear of violence.

Police were called to Canterbury High Street after Esmatullah Sharfi was spotted with what looked like a real gun
Police were called to Canterbury High Street after Esmatullah Sharfi was spotted with what looked like a real gun

Jailing him on Wednesday for four years, Judge Simon James said it would not have been "obviously apparent" to his victims that it was a fake gun being used to "frighten, intimidate and rob" them.

He told Sharfi: "Real guns have the capacity to kill and maim in an instant. That is why imitation firearms have a very real capacity to cause fear, alarm and distress.

"You were openly brandishing a small handgun in the busy High Street. Not only were innocent bystanders caused to fear violence but you used what turned out to be an imitation firearm to affect a robbery.

"The weapon turned out to be a cigarette lighter but in the gloom of an October evening, the fact the gun wasn't real would not have been obviously apparent.

"It's clear people thought it was a real gun at various stages and you were obviously using it in a manner where you intended others to believe it was a real firearm.

"The location and timing of your offending is an aggravating feature, as is the fact there were a number of different individuals caused to fear violence would be used against them."

On release from prison Sharfi will be referred to the Home Office for possible deportation.

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