The deaths of 39 Vietnamese migrants inside this truck sent shockwaves around the world | Photo: picture-alliance/dpa/S. Rousseau
The deaths of 39 Vietnamese migrants inside this truck sent shockwaves around the world | Photo: picture-alliance/dpa/S. Rousseau

The ringleaders of a human smuggling group have been handed prison terms for their involvement in a plot that led to the deaths of 39 Vietnamese migrants. Their bodies were found in a truck near London in 2019.

A court in the UK sentenced several men to prison on Friday after they were convicted for their roles in the 2019 deaths of 39 Vietnamese migrants.

The men were given prison terms ranging from 13 to 27 years for involvement in a people-smuggling plot that led to their deaths.

In October 2019, the victims — who ranged in age from 15 to 44 — slowly suffocated inside a container in the back of a truck that was discovered at an industrial port near London. The case sparked widespread outrage.

What did the court rule?

Two defendants were identified as the ringleaders of the smuggling group: Gheorghe Nica, 43, and haulier boss Ronan Hughes, 41.

Nica was sentenced to 27 years in prison while Hughes was handed 20 years.

Two truck drivers also received prison sentences. A 23-year-old driver identified as Eamonn Harrison was given an 18-year sentence, while 26-year-old driver Maurice Robinson was given 13 years and four months.

The judge also ordered that the men serve two-thirds of their sentences in custody, rather than the more customary 50%.

Three other men involved in the group were also handed prison terms from three to seven years. They'd previously been found guilty of conspiracy to assist unlawful immigration.

Catholics attend a mass prayer for the 39 migrants found dead in the back of a truck near London, UK, in Nghe An province, Vietnam | Photo: Reuters/Kham
Catholics attend a mass prayer for the 39 migrants found dead in the back of a truck near London, UK, in Nghe An province, Vietnam | Photo: Reuters/Kham


What happened in the case?

In late October 2019, the 39 victims were found dead inside a container in the industrial port of Purfleet near London. 

They'd been driven from Dunkirk in France to Zeebruggee in Belgium, where the truck was then loaded onto a Britain-bound ferry.

The container's cooling system had been shut off, leaving the migrants to endure scorching temperatures in the airtight container.

The migrants slowly and painfully suffocated to death inside. One forensic expert testified that the would have taken around nine hours for the air in the container to turn toxic.

The victims each paid more than £10,000 ($13,000; €11,200) to be smuggled into the UK, seeking a better life abroad.

During the trial, police said voice messages and texts recovered from the victims' mobile phones showed that they tried to raise the alarm, but were unable to get a signal in the container.

Recordings of their final messages to family members back home were played in court. In one message, a man gasped for air as he told his loved ones: "I can't breath. I want to come back to my family. Have a good life."

rs/msh (dpa, AFP, AP)

First published: January 22, 2021

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