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Men sentenced for their parts in people-smuggling ring which left 39 dead

|News, International and organised crime

UPDATE: Ronan Hughes, 41, was today (22 January 2021) sentenced to 20 years' imprisonment. His co-conspirator, Gheorghe Nica, was sentenced to 27 years. Maurice Robinson, 26, who picked up the container, was sentenced to 13 years and four months' imprisonment. Eamonn Harrison, 24, received 18 years. Christopher Kennedy, 24, was sentenced to seven years. Valentin Calota, 38, received four-and-a-half years' imprisonment and Alexandru Hanga, 28, three years. All were given concurrent sentences for involvement in assisting unlawful immigration.

Four men have been found guilty of being involved in an illegal people-smuggling operation which left 39 dead. They join four more who pleaded guilty before trial.

The Vietnamese men and women, who were aged between 15 and 44, were found dead on 22 October 2019.

They died of oxygen starvation after being sealed in an air-tight lorry container for 11 and 3/4 hours.

Russell Tyner, of the CPS Organised Crime Division, said: "This is an unimaginably tragic case. 39 vulnerable people desperate for a new life were driven to put their trust in a network of unscrupulous people smugglers and they suffered horrific consequences - not through their own fault but due to the sheer greed of others.

“They died through lack of oxygen, desperately trying to escape from the container. Some were able to express their last words to their families on their mobile phones when they knew their situation was hopeless.

“Nothing can bring back the lives lost on that day and the loss caused by the unlawful and dangerous actions taken by these defendants. But we hope that these convictions bring some measure of solace to their families that the perpetrators of these actions have faced justice. Our thoughts remain with them on what must be another painful day.

“The CPS hopes this terrible incident, and these convictions today, will send a real warning to anybody considering smuggling people into the UK.”

Eammon Harrison, 23, who drove the lorry from northern Europe to Zeebrugge, and Gheorghe Nica, 43, were found guilty today of 39 counts of manslaughter, and conspiracy to assist unlawful immigration.
Lorry driver Maurice Robinson and Ronan Hughes, had already admitted the same offences before the trial began.

Christopher Kennedy, 24, another lorry driver, and Valentin Calota, 37, were found guilty of people smuggling offences today.

Robinson picked up the container from the cargo ship in Purfleet and opened the lorry.
Nica and Calota, who had previously collected lorry loads of people once they had arrived in England were linked to the plan.

Two other men were also convicted after admitting offences connected to the people-smuggling ring.

How the cases were proved by the CPS and the police:

Eammon Harrison and Christopher Kennedy had denied knowing that people were inside the trailer. Gheorghe Nica admitted being part of a people-smuggling ring but denied being involved in the events of 22 October and 23 October which led to the deaths.

Valentin Calota said he was not involved in transporting people – he said that he collected boxes that had cigarettes inside.

The CPS was able to work with and use the evidence gathered by Essex Police to prove the cases against each defendant.

Russell Tyner, of the CPS Organised Crime Division, said: “This is one of the largest manslaughter cases the CPS has ever prosecuted and we worked tirelessly to bring this complex case to court and see justice done for the 39 victims.

“After the horrific discovery of the bodies, many of these men fled because they knew what they had done.

“But we were able to use all of the legal powers and networks available to us to pursue them, bring them to the UK and see them face justice. That included meeting with prosecutors from the Netherlands and Germany, setting up a Joint Investigation Team with Belgium, France and later Ireland, as well as handling the extradition of Hughes, Nica and Harrison.

“By these manslaughter convictions, these men bear full responsibility for the tragic deaths of 39 people.

"They had placed their trust in this organised criminal network who were reckless in pursuit of their greed.

"Two of these men tried to claim that they did not know the number of people who had been put into the back of the lorry and said the deaths were not their fault.

"But we were able to prove that if you put people inside a sealed container, you are creating a risk of harm - whether it is 1 or 100 people."

The CPS is committed to working with law enforcement to identify and prosecute those that exploit and profit from trafficking.

Significant sums of money were made from this exploitation and the CPS will seek to work with police financial investigators to legally pursue any money that has been made, to ensure that no one profits from this horrific tragedy.

The CPS was also able to apply for an order to allow a witness to give evidence anonymously in a way that was still fair for the defence but protected him from the threat of violence.

Notes to editors

Found guilty today:

  • Gheorghe Nica, 43 [DOB: 14/01/1977] – manslaughter x 39, and conspiracy to assist unlawful immigration. Sentence: 27 years total
  • Eammon Harrison, 23, [DOB: 12/12/1996] - manslaughter x 39, and conspiracy to assist unlawful immigration. Sentence: 18 years total
  • Christopher Kennedy, 24, [DOB: 11/09/1996] - conspiracy to assist unlawful immigration. Sentence 7 years
  • Valentin Calota, 37, [DOB: 22/11/1982] - conspiracy to assist unlawful immigration. Sentence 4.5 years

Previous pleas:

  • Ronan Hughes - admitted manslaughter x 39, and conspiracy to assist unlawful immigration. Sentence 20 years total
  • Maurice Robinson - admitted manslaughter x 39, and conspiracy to assist unlawful immigration, and acquiring criminal property. Sentence 13 years total
  • Gazmir Nuzi - admitted a charge of assisting unlawful immigration
  • Alexandru Hanga - admitted conspiracy to assist unlawful immigration. Sentence 3 years.

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