Head of human trafficking gang jailed for 15 years over deaths of 39 migrants in 2019

The discovery of the bodies in an airtight shipping container in Britain led to outcry

The defendants’ box is seen during the verdict hearing at a trial of 23 people over people-smuggling, in Bruges, Belgium. Photograph: Kurt Desplenter/Belga/AFP via Getty Images

The defendants’ box is seen during the verdict hearing at a trial of 23 people over people-smuggling, in Bruges, Belgium. Photograph: Kurt Desplenter/Belga/AFP via Getty Images

 

The Vietnamese head of a human trafficking gang was sentenced to 15 years in jail by a Belgian court on Wednesday for the manslaughter of 39 compatriots who suffocated in an airtight shipping container smuggled into Britain in 2019.

The court in Bruges also ordered the man, Vo Van Hong (45), to pay a €920,000 fine and gave prison terms of between 18 months and 10 years to 17 others for their roles in a large-scale people-smuggling operation from Vietnam to Britain.

The three-judge panel said in a ruling that ran to 234 pages that those convicted had cynically exploited the 39 people, who were each charged nearly €25,000 for the trip to Britain, and treated them as a dehumanised cargo.

Vo, who organised a total of 409 crossings to the UK and rented a safe house in Anderlecht, had the job of ensuring that those seeking to get to Britain arrived at the loading points and made their payments. He told those being smuggled to switch off their mobile phones before departure.

In the 234-page verdict, Judge Bert Salembier wrote that Vo was “indisputably the leader of the Belgian cell of the criminal organisation”.

Among those convicted were 11 people from Vietnam or of Vietnamese origin who allowed their property to be used as a meeting point, sorted out documents or mobile phone SIM cards for the victims or acted as intermediaries.

Six taxi drivers, who took migrants mainly from Brussels to meeting points for various trafficking operations, were also convicted.

The bodies of the 39 Vietnamese people were found inside a truck container that had boarded a ship in the Belgian port of Zeebrugge.

The discovery of the victims – two as young as 15 – in the back of the truck on an industrial estate to the east of London shocked Britain and Vietnam.

The convictions in Belgium, where the smuggling network had been based, followed the jailing of three Irish men by a court in London last year for manslaughter in relation to the deaths.

Most of those who died were from Nghe An and Ha Tinh provinces in north-central Vietnam, where poor job prospects, environmental disasters and the promise of financial reward abroad fuel migration. – Reuters/Guardian