KECSKEMET, Hungary (AFP) - Eleven men went on trial on Wednesday (June 21) over the deaths of 71 migrants found in an abandoned truck in Austria nearly two years ago, in one of the most disturbing cases marking Europe's migration crisis.
The gruesome discovery of 59 men, eight women and four children crammed inside a refrigerated lorry near the Hungarian border in August 2015 sparked international revulsion.
It also prompted countries along the now-shut western Balkan migrant route to open their borders to hundreds of thousands of people fleeing war and poverty, mainly in the Middle East.
The trial is being held in the southern Hungarian town of Kecskemet because authorities determined that the migrants' deaths had occurred in Hungary.
Surrounded by heavily armed and masked police, the defendants - 10 Bulgarians, one Afghan and one Lebanese national - entered the courtroom packed with foreign journalists on Wednesday morning.
The Afghan, identified as 30-year-old Samsoor L. and thought to the ringleader, arrived first and flashed a smile at the crowd.
While all are accused of human trafficking and torture, four including the Afghan have also been charged with "homicide with particular cruelty" and face life imprisonment.
One suspect remains at large and will be tried in absentia, with verdicts expected by the end of the year.
The accused allegedly belonged to a gang that smuggled more than 1,200 people into western Europe at the height of the continent's migration crisis.
According to prosecutors, refugees were "often carried in closed, dark and airless vans unsuitable for passenger transport, in crowded, inhuman, excruciating conditions".
In the case of the 71 asylum seekers, post-mortem examinations revealed they had "suffocated in horrendous conditions" shortly after being picked up near the Serbian-Hungarian border.
All except one have been identified. Most were repatriated to their home countries, while a dozen are buried at a Muslim cemetery in Vienna.
Some 59,000 pages of evidence have been gathered detailing the horror find on the side of the A4 motorway in Burgenland state on August 27, 2015.
An Austrian police patrol had spotted the deserted truck and noticed liquid dripping from the vehicle - decomposing body fluids, as it would later emerge.
Inside, officers discovered a sea of tangled limbs squashed into a 14-square-metre cargo container.
Among the corpses was a baby girl, not even a year old.
Investigations showed that the victims - all from Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan - had been dead for two days.
The extent of their ordeal was revealed in recently released transcripts of intercepted mobile phone conversations between the smugglers.
"They are screaming the whole time, you can't imagine what's happening here," the Bulgarian driver, named as 26-year-old Ivajlo S., is quoted as saying in the transcripts obtained by German media.
The suspected Afghan boss orders him to ignore the suffocating people and keep on driving: "If they die... drop them off in a forest in Germany."
German newspaper Sueddeutsche Zeitung (SZ) reported that Hungarian police had intercepted the chats as part of an ongoing probe into the smuggling ring and failed to act.
But Hungarian officials said the conversations had not been listened to in real time but were recorded for later translation.
"If the Hungarian authorities had had a chance to stop this horrible tragedy, they would have done so," Hungarian prosecutor Gabor Schmidt told the SZ.
Investigators allege that the suspects showed no signs of remorse despite knowing that the migrants had died.
A day after the death truck discovery, the gang had loaded another 67 migrants into a refrigerator lorry and again driven to Austria.
"This time the migrants could kick the door of the load area open, thus no one had died," according to prosecutors.