LONDON • Four men were given long jail sentences on Friday for the manslaughter of 39 Vietnamese men, women and children who suffocated to death in a stifling, airtight shipping container in October 2019 as they were being smuggled into Britain.
The discovery of so many dead people - two as young as 15 - in the back of the container truck at an industrial estate to the east of London shocked Britain and Vietnam. It also shone a spotlight on the illicit global trade that sends the poor of Asia, Africa and the Middle East on perilous journeys to the West.
As oxygen levels fell, some tried to escape, but in vain. Others used mobile phones to say their last farewells to devastated relatives.
Judge Nigel Sweeney said they suffered an "excruciating slow death" as he jailed the four men and three others involved in the people-smuggling gang for a total of 92 years at London's Old Bailey criminal court. He said it was a sophisticated, long-running, and profitable scheme which would have netted the gang hundreds of thousands of pounds.
The four who admitted to or were found guilty of manslaughter and immigration offences were Ronan Hughes, 41, Gheorghe Nica, 44, Maurice Robinson, 26, and Eamonn Harrison, 24.
Hughes, a haulier from Northern Ireland and the leader of the plot, was jailed for 20 years, while Nica, a Romanian and also a major figure, was sentenced to 27 years. Robinson, the Northern Irish driver of the truck, was jailed for 13 years, and Harrison, also from the British province and who drove the container to the Belgian port of Zeebrugge from where the victims were taken to Britain, was jailed for 18 years.
Three other members of the gang were sentenced for conspiracy to facilitate unlawful immigration. Christopher Kennedy, 24, was jailed for seven years; Valentin Calota, 38, for 41/2 years, and Alexandru-Ovidiu Hanga, 28, for three years.
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.