A Belgian court has sentenced a Vietnamese man to 15 years in prison after ruling that he was the ringleader of a gang that trafficked migrants found dead in a lorry in the UK.
Vo Van Hong was found guilty of leading a cross-Channel people trafficking operation based in Belgium.
Thirty-nine Vietnamese people, aged 15-44, were discovered suffocated at an industrial estate in Essex in 2019.
The court found that at least 15 of them had passed through Hong’s network.
Hong was one of 23 people on trial in Belgium. Last year, a UK court convicted four people of manslaughter.
The tragedy that emerged in the Essex town of Grays exposed the nature of the gangs exploiting migrants risking everything to get to the UK.
The Belgian court said Hong was responsible for running a criminal organisation that had smuggled at least 115 people across the Channel between September 2018 and his arrest in May 2020. He had denied involvement, claiming that he was himself a victim of the gang.
All those put on trial in Bruges were either Vietnamese themselves or Belgians of Vietnamese origin. Four were cleared by the court, while 19 were convicted.
They were accused of playing a role before the deadly journey across the Channel from Zeebrugge, buying supplies for the migrants, transporting them in taxis or acting as look-outs at safe houses in the Anderlecht area, the BBC’s Nick Beake reports from Brussels.
Two other members of the gang were given lengthy sentences, including Nguyen Long, 46, described as the ringleader’s main lieutenant, according to AFP news agency. The court condemned the gang’s contempt for their victims’ human dignity and wellbeing.
“It’s clear that anyone who persists in engaging in this practice and pays no attention to the welfare of these people will be severely punished,” Luc Arnou, a lawyer for the victims’ families, told Belgian TV.
The British trial that ended a year ago at the Old Bailey in London convicted two lorry drivers and two other smugglers of manslaughter, while three others were jailed for involvement in the gang.
Among the victims were a bricklayer, a university graduate and a nail bar technician. A couple in their mid-30s left behind two young children.
They were found to have died in the lorry container of asphyxiation and hyperthermia brought on by very high temperatures and a lack of oxygen.
The father of a 15-year-old boy called Nguyen Huy Hung learned of his death over social media.
The judge in London said those inside the container had tried desperately to break through the roof and to contact their families by phone during the sea crossing to Purfleet.
In addition to the Belgian and British trials, a Vietnamese court has also handed down sentences while 26 suspects face trial in France.