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People smuggling gang jailed for lorry deaths of 39 Vietnamese migrants

Written by on 22/01/2021

The main members of a people smuggling gang have been given long jail sentences after 39 Vietnamese illegal immigrants suffocated in the back of their lorry.

Defence lawyers had argued that none of the smugglers had known there were so many men, women and children crammed into the sealed trailer.

The victims died when they ran out of air in temperatures of up to 38.5C (101F), as the trailer was shipped from Belgium to Purfleet docks, Essex, in October 2019.

Police and forensics officers in Grays, Essex, last October
Image: The dead migrants included men, women and children, aged 15 to 44

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Essex lorry deaths: What happened?

Two of the gang had admitted 39 manslaughter charges, while two more had been convicted of the same crimes after a 10-week trial late last year.

Haulier Ronan Hughes, 41, from Ireland, was a ringleader who supplied lorries and drivers over 18 months and was paid £3,000 for each migrant who arrived safely.

He admitted manslaughter and people smuggling and was jailed for 20 years.

Lorry driver Maurice Robinson is seen leaving Purfleet port in Essex after collecting the trailer containing the migrants
Image: Maurice Robinson discovered the bodies, but it took him 23 minutes to call for an ambulance
Ronan Hughes has pleaded guilty to 39 counts of manslaughter
Image: Haulier Ronan Hughes, 41, was a ringleader who supplied lorries and drivers

His lawyer said he usually smuggled 25 migrants in one operation and did not know there were 39 in the doomed trailer until it was too late to save them.

More from Essex Lorry Deaths

He had sent lorry driver Maurice Robinson, who collected the trailer at Purfleet, a Snapchat message reading: “Give them air quickly, don’t let them out.”

Robinson, 26, said he thought there were no more than 20 inside.

He opened the doors and discovered the bodies, but it took him 23 minutes to call for an ambulance.

His lawyer described the driver as “criminally unsophisticated” and did not appreciate the risks involved.

Robinson, from Northern Ireland, had admitted manslaughter and people smuggling. He was jailed for 13 years and four months.

Eamonn Harrison has denied killing the 39 migrants
Image: Eamonn Harrison was convicted of 39 counts of manslaughter
Gheorghe Nica pleaded not guilty to the manslaughter of the migrants
Image: Gheorghe Nica was also found guilty of the manslaughter of the migrants

Another lorry driver, Eamonn Harrison, 24, had picked up the migrants in northern France and driven them to the Belgium port of Zeebrugge, where he delivered the trailer for the ferry ride to Essex.

He had denied manslaughter and people smuggling and claimed during his Old Bailey trial that he thought he was smuggling stolen lorry parts.

He claimed he was told to park up and hide when the migrants were loaded into his trailer and had no idea how many were on board.

A message sent from Ronan Hughes to Maurice Robinson said: 'Give them air quickly don't let them out'
Image: Ronan Hughes sent a message to Maurice Robinson on Snapchat

His lawyer described him as “a somewhat inadequate young man” who had followed orders and would bear responsibility for the rest of his life.

Harrison, from Northern Ireland, was convicted of manslaughter and people smuggling and jailed for 18 years.

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Moment lorry driver found dead migrants

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police arrive at lorry filled with bodies

Gheorghe Nica, 43, had supplied cars and drivers to transfer migrants from the lorries to a safe house in south London.

He had denied manslaughter, but admitted being involved in previous smuggling operations and was jailed for 27 years.

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Nica’s lawyer said he did not know how many migrants were in the trailer and suggested haulier Ronan Hughes was more of a ringleader than he was.

Prosecutor Jonathan Polnay told the judge at an earlier hearing that both Hughes and Nica were leading figures in the smuggling operation, but added: “Whether or not the full picture will ever be known – was it a strictly hierarchical organisation with people based in different countries, or was it different organised criminals working in a chain? – it’s not clear.”

 Sky News

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