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Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 23 June 2018

Traffickers get 25 years in jail for migrant deaths

Victims were packed into air-tight truck as driver ignored cries to stop and open vehicle doors

Members of an international smuggler group are pictured at a courthouse in Hungarian town Kecskemet in 2017, during the opening of a trial in connection with deaths of 71 migrants. The verdict is expected on June 14. AFP
Members of an international smuggler group are pictured at a courthouse in Hungarian town Kecskemet in 2017, during the opening of a trial in connection with deaths of 71 migrants. The verdict is expected on June 14. AFP

Four men were jailed for 25 years on Thursday over the deaths of 71 migrants found in a truck on an Austrian highway in 2015, in a case that sparked international revulsion.

The trial took place in Hungary, which took over the proceedings from Vienna after it emerged that the migrants had suffocated in Hungary.

Ten other suspects were also found guilty and handed prison sentences of between three and 12 years by the court in the southern town of Kecskemet.

The men had been charged with "aggravated murder with particular cruelty" in the year-long trial, which put the spotlight on the plight of migrants who put their lives into the hands of human traffickers.

State prosecutor Gabor Schmidt has asked for life terms for four of the 14 accused, insisting that three should get life without parole under Hungarian law.

The victims – 59 men, eight women and four children, including a baby – came from Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan, joining hundreds of thousands like them trying to get to Germany in 2015 at the height of Europe's worst migrant crisis since the Second World War.

The deaths led a shocked German Chancellor Angela Merkel to announce she would open the country's doors, eventually allowing in some one million refugees, mostly from Syria.

Having made their way to the Serbian border with Hungary, the group of 71 were packed into the air-tight truck, with their cries to stop and open the doors for fresh air ignored.

Realising what had happened, the driver abandoned the refrigerated lorry by the side of a motorway in Austria.

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The accused said they had not known their human cargo was dying, although evidence was produced to say they did.

The ringleader, Samsoor Lahoo, himself a young Afghan of 31 who had fled his country, told the court in a final statement that he "had not wanted anyone's death".

But police telephone intercepts of calls made with his men on the truck asking what to do came across differently – he told them not to open the doors.

"Let them die instead. That's an order," Lahoo allegedly says in one of the calls.

"If they die, let him dump them in a forest in Germany," he adds.

Challenged with this evidence, Lahoo told the court they were simply "thoughtless remarks".

For prosecutor Mr Schmidt, Lahoo showed only "endless greed" and "frightening indifference" to migrants desperate to get to Europe.

When Austrian police opened the back of the lorry, they found the bodies of the migrants piled on top of each other.

Investigations showed they had been dead for two days, suffocating shortly after being picked up in Hungary, then a key transit country on the Balkan migrant trail.

Hungarian officials have said the Budapest-based ring was a professional network with more than 15 vehicles used to transport refugees who were trekking up from Greece along the western Balkans to Europe.

The gang had smuggled more than 1,100 people from Hungary into Austria since February 2015, charging up to €1,500 (Dh6,514) a head, investigators said.

As well as Lahoo, the prosecutor had called for life without parole for one of Lahoo's closest associates and the driver of the truck, two Bulgarians, 31 and 27 respectively. Another Bulgarian man faced a life sentence but with the possibility of parole.