Four people-smugglers convicted of killing 39 people from Vietnam – who died in the back of a container truck as it was shipped to England – have been sentenced to between 13 and 27 years in prison.
The victims, between the ages of 15 and 44, were found in October 2019 inside a refrigerated container that had travelled by ferry from Belgium to the eastern England port of Purfleet. The migrants had paid people-smugglers thousands of dollars to take them on risky journeys to what they hoped would be better lives abroad.
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Judge Nigel Sweeney told the court on Friday the gang’s operation was a “sophisticated, long-running and profitable one to smuggle mainly Vietnamese migrants across the channel”.
He told the defendants they would serve at least two-thirds of their terms in custody, instead of the usual half.
The judge sentenced Romanian mechanic Gheorghe Nica, 43, described by prosecutors as the smuggling ringleader, to 27 years. Northern Irish truck driver Eamonn Harrison, 24, who drove the container to the Belgian port of Zeebrugge, received an 18-year sentence.
Trucker Maurice Robinson, 26, who picked the container up in England, was sentenced to 13 years and four months in prison, while haulage company boss Ronan Hughes, 41, was jailed for 20 years.
Nica and Harrison were convicted last month after a 10-week trial. Hughes and Robinson had pleaded guilty to people-smuggling and manslaughter.
Three other members of the gang received shorter sentences.
Prosecutors said all the suspects were part of a gang that charged about 13,000 pounds ($17,000) per person to transport migrants in trailers through the Channel Tunnel or by boat.
The trapped migrants – who included a bricklayer, a restaurant worker, a nail bar technician, a budding beautician and a university graduate – used a metal pole to try to punch through the roof of the refrigerated container, but only managed to dent it.
Detective Chief Inspector Danny Stoten of Essex Police said outside court that the gang “made their money from misery”.
“They treated the victims as a commodity and they transported them in ways that we would not transport animals,” he said, adding he hoped the case sent a strong message that others involved in this activity “will face justice”.
The group of migrants endured scorching temperatures inside the container.
Haulage firm boss Hughes, 41, closed his eyes during the trial as he heard recordings of the victims’ distressing final moments.
In one message, a man struggled for air as he apologised to his family, saying: “I can’t breathe.”
“I want to come back to my family. Have a good life,” he added, as distressed noises from other victims were heard in the background.
Nguyen Huy Tung, whose 15-year-old son Nguyen Huy Hung died in the tragedy, said the family “did not believe it was the truth until we saw his body by our own eyes” at the hospital.
“We were very shocked, trembled, we lost track and awareness of our surroundings,” he added. “My wife had fainted many times whenever our son’s name was mentioned.”
Prosecutors have said the trapped migrants were unable to get a phone signal inside the container, whose cooling system was turned off.