A Belgian court sentenced a Vietnamese man to 15 years in prison on Wednesday after convicting him of being the ringleader in the trafficking of 39 migrants found dead in a lorry.
Vo Van Hong, 45, was found guilty of leading a cross-Channel people-trafficking operation that has been linked to a truck found full of corpses on an English industrial estate in October 2019.
At least 15 of the 39 dead had passed through the Belgian-based trafficking network, which operated two safe houses in the Anderlecht district of Brussels for migrants heading to Britain.
The 2019 discovery on the Grays industrial park east of London was one of the worst involving migrants in recent years.
The victims — 31 men and eight women aged between 15 and 44, all Vietnamese — died from suffocation and hyperthermia in the confined space of the container, which arrived on a ferry from Zeebrugge.
Several suspects have already been convicted and incarcerated in Britain and Vietnam in connection with the case. In France, 26 more have been charged and face trial.
– ‘Well-organised’ –
In Belgium, Vo was one of 23 suspects — both Belgians and Vietnamese — put on trial after a May 2020 police operation in which several addresses, most in the Brussels region, were raided and Vietnamese suspected of links to the gang were rounded up.
Of the 23, a total of 18 — including Vo — were convicted and five were acquitted.
Vo was handed the stiffest sentence, followed by his main lieutenant, who received 10 years, and one driver who received seven years.
The other 15 who were convicted received sentences ranging from one year to four years and two months, most of them with suspensions applied.
Most of the defendants were convicted as members of the people-smuggling ring while others were charged as accomplices, used as safe-house guards, grocery shoppers for the migrants or drivers.
Prosecutors said the “very well-organised” gang was specialised in clandestinely transporting people into Europe then Britain for a fee of 24,000 euros ($27,000) per person.
Vo was convicted of running a criminal organisation in Belgium involved in smuggling a total of 115 identified people to Britain between September 2018 and the date of his arrest in May 2020.
He denied acting as ringleader and claimed he was a “victim” of the smuggling ring.
He was handed a 15-year sentence, the statutory maximum, and a fine of 920,000 euros ($1 million).
Prosecutors said the gang used an Irish trucking company that regularly imported Vietnamese biscuits to get the migrants across the Channel.
Vietnamese gang members took charge of the arriving migrants once they got to Britain.
Many of the dead migrants in the truck came from a poor region in the centre of Vietnam.
Families there rack up thousands of dollars in debt to have a single family member smuggled into Britain in the hope of securing a better life.