Verdict due in Belgium trial over UK migrant truck deaths
A Belgian court on Wednesday is to deliver its verdict in a trial of 23 people suspected of being involved with a gang that smuggled Vietnamese migrants to Britain, 39 of whom died in the back of a truck in October 2019.
The trial, which started in the city of Bruges on December 15, focused on the fact that many of the victims left from the outskirts of Brussels, where the gang allegedly had two safe houses to group migrants.
The bodies of the migrants — 31 men and eight women, aged 15 to 44 and all from Vietnam — were discovered in Britain when the container they were in was opened. They had suffocated to death in extremely hot weather during the ferry crossing.
They had tried without success to pierce the metal container’s roof with a pole.
The crime triggered police investigations on both sides of the Channel and in Vietnam.
The Belgian trial stemmed from a May 2020 police operation in which several addresses, most in the Brussels region, were raided and Vietnamese suspected of links to the gang were rounded up.
Most of the defendants were allegedly members of the people-smuggling ring. The remainder allegedly were accomplices, used as safe-house guards, grocery shoppers for the migrants, or taxi drivers.
Prosecutors said the “very well-organised” gang was specialised in clandestinely transporting people into Europe then Britain for a total fee of 24,000 euros ($27,000) per person.
– Suspects deny involvement –
The investigation determined that at least 15 of the 39 migrants who died in the container were loaded inside in Belgium on October 22, 2019.
The container was believed to have made a detour through northern France before being loaded on to a ferry from the Belgian port of Zeebrugge.
Prosecutors accused one of the Vietnamese suspects, named as Vo Van Hong, 45, of running the criminal organisation. They called for him to be sentenced to 15 years in prison if convicted.
Vo denied involvement and said he was a victim of the gang.
Prosecutors urged sentences ranging from one year to 10 years for the other 22 suspects, most of whom were also Vietnamese or Belgians of Vietnamese origin.
They, too, have all denied involvement in people smuggling, and their lawyers asked for an acquittal.
The gang was responsible for “at least 130 transports” into Britain, according to prosecutors.
Prosecutors said it used an Irish trucking company that regularly imported Vietnamese biscuits to get the migrants across the Channel, and that Vietnamese gang members took charge of them once they got to Britain.
Several men have already been convicted and incarcerated in Britain and Vietnam in connection with the case. In France, 26 suspects have been charged and face trial.
Many of the dead migrants in the truck came from a poor region in the centre of Vietnam.
Families there can rack up debts of thousands of dollars to have one member of their family smuggled into Britain in the hope of securing a better life.