The two leaders of a gang of human traffickers responsible for the deaths of 39 Vietnamese migrants have been sentenced to 20 and 27 years in prison by a court in London.
Ronan Hughes was the Irish owner of a road haulage company that alternated between legitimate transports of wine and groceries and smuggling of alcohol, cigarettes and human beings. He was given 20 years.
Gheorghe Nica was a Romanian lorry mechanic whose role was to coordinate the supply of migrants wishing to travel from the European mainland to the United Kingdom, and received a sentence of 27 years.
The fatal transport was to bring the 39 migrants from Northern France to the UK. A driver picked up the lorry in Northern France and drove it to Zeebrugge, where it took its place on a ferry to Purfleet in Essex.
There, another driver was to pick up the lorry, open it briefly to allow some fresh air in, and then drive on to its final destination.
But when he opened the truck, the people inside were all dead. The temperature had built up to 38.5°C, and the migrants had died of a combination of asphyxia and extreme body heat, what the judge in the case referred to as “excruciatingly slow deaths”.
As the oxygen inside the lorry had begun to disappear, those inside had made a desperate but futile attempt to escape through the roof. Others tried to call emergency services in Vietnam.
And as the situation became clear, the inmates started to send farewell messages to their families back home.
The lorry driver who drove the lorry from France to Zeebrugge was sentenced to 18 years on counts of human trafficking and manslaughter. The driver who picked up the truck in Essex was given 13 years and four months.
Handing down the sentences, the judge in the case said there was a need for deterrence, because “the control of immigration, which affects the social fabric of our country, our economy and our security is an area of considerable public concern”.
“On 23 October 2019 we were called to a scene that no officer could ever have prepared for,” said chief constable of Essex police, Ben-Julian Harrington, after the sentencing. “Every person in that trailer had left behind a family. They had been promised safe passage to our shores and they were lied to. They were left to die, all because of the greed of the men who have been sentenced today.”