Hungary jails smugglers over ‘horrendous’ truck death of 71 migrants

Syrians, Afghans and Iraqis suffocated in locked wagon in 2015

A Hungarian court has convicted 14 people smugglers over the deaths of 71 Syrians, Afghans and Iraqis who suffocated in the back of a locked truck in 2015, just days before Germany decided to open its borders temporarily to refugees and migrants.

One Afghan and three Bulgarians were each given 25 years in jail for playing leading roles in the crime, and ignoring the screams and pleas for help of their victims, whom they left to die in a sealed and almost airless transporter for frozen chicken.

The 59 men, eight women and four children were loaded into the truck near the Serbia-Hungary border on August 26th, 2015, at the height of a crisis that saw more than one million people escaping war and poverty try to reach wealthy European Union states via the so-called Balkan route.

Prosecutors said they died “in horrendous conditions” just hours later as the truck was travelling through Hungary, and its driver fled after parking the vehicle on the side of a major Austrian motorway leading from the Hungarian border to Vienna.

Hungarian state prosecutor Gabor Schmidt requested life sentences for the four main accused, saying they had knowingly let their desperate passengers die.

Desperate shouts

During the trial, Mr Schmidt presented an intercepted telephone conversation between the alleged ringleader in the smuggling operation, Afghan citizen Samsoor Lahoo (31) and an accomplice who said the Bulgarian truck driver could hear the refugees shouting and banging desperately for its doors to be opened.

“Let them die instead. That’s an order,” Mr Lahoo allegedly replied.

“If they die, let him dump them in a forest in Germany.”

Mr Lahoo played down these words as mere “thoughtless remarks” and insisted that he – having used smuggling networks himself to reach Hungary in 2013 – “had not wanted anyone’s death”.

Mr Schmidt said the actions of Mr Lahoo and his fellow smugglers spoke of their “endless greed” and “frightening indifference” towards more than 1,000 people who had allegedly used their network to reach EU countries.

Judge Janos Jadi, presiding over the court in the southern town of Kecskemet, said Mr Lahoo was "guilty of homicide committed as an accomplice".

“Therefore, the . . . accused is sentenced to 25 years in prison as member of an organised crime group.”

Mr Jadi said that all four main defendants “knew that their actions could result in the death of the people in the container, but they accepted the outcome that they could foresee”.

The court sentenced nine other Bulgarians and a Lebanese citizen to jail terms of between three and 12 years; three of the Bulgarians were tried in absentia.

The gruesome case – and the daily deaths of people trying to reach Europe by sea – appalled many Europeans at a time when it was feared that a surge in migration could trigger a humanitarian crisis in the Balkans.

In response, Germany eased the pressure by temporarily opening its borders to refugees and migrants, while Hungary rushed to build fences to seal its southern frontiers.

Daniel McLaughlin

Daniel McLaughlin

Daniel McLaughlin is a contributor to The Irish Times from central and eastern Europe