Mass grave truck in England: up to 15 years in prison imposed in the Belgian trial

BRUGES | Denouncing a “contempt for human dignity”, the Belgian justice sentenced Wednesday to 15 years in prison a Vietnamese for having organized between Brussels and England the clandestine transport of migrants, which cost the lives of 39 of his compatriots in 2019 .

At least 15 of the victims had been taken care of from the Belgian capital, where the network of traffickers had two hideouts.

And Vo Van Hong, 45, “was unquestionably the head of the Belgian cell of the criminal organization”, underlined in its motivations the correctional court of Bruges (north-west of Belgium).

This Vietnamese, who has never ceased to proclaim his innocence, receives the maximum sentence provided for the facts prosecuted, i.e. the 15 years claimed by the federal prosecution during the trial on December 15.

His lawyer did not rule out appealing: “We will first discuss the judgment with my client,” said Antoon Vandecasteele.

A total of 39 bodies were found on October 23, 2019 in a container in the back of a truck in the industrial area of ​​Grays, east London.

The victims — 31 men and eight women, aged 15 to 44 — were all from Vietnam. They died of asphyxiation and hyperthermia due to the heat and lack of oxygen, some after unsuccessful attempts to break through the container wall.

In its 234-page judgment, the Bruges court castigated facts “of a seriousness rarely seen”, denoting “a contempt for human dignity”.

Six taxi drivers sentenced

The victims had boarded the container on October 22 near Dunkirk, in northern France. It was then shipped to England from the Belgian port of Zeebrugge. After the macabre discovery, an investigation was quickly opened in Belgium to identify the relays of this traffic having acted from Belgian soil.

A total of 23 people, mainly members of the Vietnamese community in Belgium, were tried in Bruges.

The court pronounced 18 convictions and five acquittals, including one concerning a taxi driver, Belgian of Vietnamese origin, already convicted in 2019 for illegal transport of migrants.

Six other taxi drivers are among the convicted. They are mainly Moroccans or Belgians of Moroccan origin, whom the court considered that they could not ignore their participation in human trafficking. One of them was sentenced to seven years in prison.

These drivers transported customers “who could not be understood”, during races always ordered and paid for by the same people, to “clearly suspicious” destinations such as motorway parking lots, underlines the judgment.

Owners of hideouts, “stewards” in charge of the needs of migrants in transit: the other “little hands” of the network have been sentenced to terms ranging from one year to 50 months in prison, some suspended.

The most heavily sentenced defendant after Vo Van Hong is another Vietnamese, Nguyen Long (10 years firm), considered his main collaborator, who continued his trafficking activity until June 2021.

Gain of 2.3 million euros

The Grays tragedy cast a harsh light on the risks of exile via clandestine networks, also showing the total lack of scruples of certain traffickers.

Many of the victims were from a poor region of central Vietnam, where families go into deep debt to send one of their own to the UK in the hope of a better life.

Investigators have established that each exile paid an average of 12,000 euros to travel from Southeast Asia to Europe, the same amount being then required to cross the Channel, ie 24,000 euros in total.

Up to 130 transport would have been organized from Belgium. The Bruges court estimated that Vo Van Hong had amassed around 2.3 million euros, a sum which he will have to repay via a confiscation of his property. He was also fined 920,000 euros.

This tragedy gave rise to legal proceedings in Vietnam and the United Kingdom, where seven men were sentenced in January 2021 to terms ranging from three to 27 years in prison.

In France, another trial is on the horizon. At least 26 people were indicted (charged) in the investigation opened in Paris in May 2020. Two large waves of arrests then took place simultaneously, one in Île-de-France, the other in Belgium .

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