French court convicts Vietnamese truck tragedy suspects

By AFP   November 10, 2023 | 11:30 pm PT
French court convicts Vietnamese truck tragedy suspects
Police forensics officers work on a truck, found to be containing 39 bodies, at Waterglade Industrial Park in Grays, east of London, in October 2019. Photo by AFP
A French court on Friday handed down jail sentences of up to 10 years in a people smuggling trial over the death of 39 Vietnamese migrants in a refrigerated container on the way to Britain.

The bodies of the migrants who suffocated to death -- two of whom were just 15 years old -- were discovered inside the sealed unit at a port near London in October 2019.

They had travelled in the truck from northern France to Belgium before crossing the Channel to Britain.

Two ringleaders of the operation -- one Romanian and one British -- were convicted at a trial in 2021 in Britain and sentenced to 27 and 20 years in prison respectively.

Other suspects, notably the drivers, received 12 to 20 years, while a Belgian court handed a 15-year term to a Vietnamese man for heading the local cell of the network.

Of the 19 defendants in the French trial -- who include Vietnamese, French, Chinese, Algerian and Moroccan nationals -- 18 were found guilty.

Four of them, all Vietnamese, were found guilty of involuntary manslaughter and sentenced to nine or 10 years in prison.

Four other Vietnamese nationals, two of whom were absent and considered fugitive, were sentenced to between one and 10 years for their role in transporting and housing the migrants.

The others, drivers or owners of apartments working with the gang, were sentenced to suspended jail terms.

One defendant, a driver, was cleared of all charges.

According to phone intercepts, the group referred to the migrants as "goods" or "chickens".

In the aftermath of the tragedy, harrowing accounts emerged from the victims, who had recorded messages to their families from inside the sealed lorry.

In one message, 26-year-old Pham Thi Tra My wrote to her parents: "Mom, dad, I love you very much. I am dying, I can no longer breathe."

Another man left a recording, saying: "I want to come back to my family. Have a good life."

Some of the defendants had claimed that they were pressured into working with the gang, but the court said that their main motivation was money.

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