A court has been told that a south London vicar has conducted nearly 500 sham marriages within 15 months, The Times has reported. If convicted, Nigerian-born Rev Nathan Ntege, will have been found guilty of conducting the second largest number of sham marriages to date.
The marriages were conducted at the church of St Jude with St Aidan in Thornton Heath, South London. The authorities grew suspicious when the number of weddings taking place at the church increased from six a year to six a day. In scenes that were described as “somewhat farcical”, the court has heard that on one day nine weddings took place, with the prospective brides lining up at the back of the church to share the same dress.
Rev Ntege is also alleged to have pocketed more than £69,000 cash from wedding fees between 2007 and 2011, around £55,000 of which was transferred to Uganda, where Rev Ntege was ordained.
The marriages contravene British immigration laws as they were organised explicitly to allow non-European Economic Area (EEA) nationals to gain a visa to live within the UK by marrying spouses with European citizenship.
Prosector Edward Lucas has told Inner London Crown Court: “The non-EEA citizens could seek to stay in the UK as the spouse of a national. Persons wishing to go through with these bogus or sham marriages were introduced specifically to this church because it was a no-questions-asked church.
“The weddings that form the subject of this case were neither conducted correctly or legally and their sole purpose was to facilitate an industrial-scale abuse of the system of immigration control within the UK.”
Most of the marriages were between Bulgarians and EEA nationals, taking place before restrictions on Bulgarian citizens’ free movement across the European Union were lifted in January this year.
“The weddings themselves were somewhat farcical,” Mr Lucas said. “They were processed by Ntege and his team like a conveyor belt.”
Also standing trial are church verger Brian Miller, 81, and church secretary Maudlyn Riviere, 67. Both are facing charges of commissioning a breach of UK immigration law, and have been accused of organising the weddings and recording false details on marriage certificates.
Galina Petkova, 51, faces seven counts of the same charge, and Georgia Forteath, 34, two, thanks to their alleged actions in acting as ‘fixers’ for the spouses. Mr Lucas has claimed that both women were married by Rev Ntege, and went on to help other brides and grooms to lie on their application forms. The women have denied the charges.
Also accused are Innocent Odoh, 34, and Angela Pelachie, 54, who are alleged to have participated in a false marriage in order to bypass UK immigration procedures. They each face one count of breaching UK immigration law, and also deny charges.
Rev Ntege has been charged with 14 counts of the same charge and one of fraud by abuse of position thanks to the cash payments, but denies all counts.
Even if found guilty, it is thought unlikely that the couples involve will face deportation. Two years ago, Rev Brian Shipsides was sent to jail for presiding over 150 sham marriages in two Anglican churches in London. Yet the Telegraph discovered that just two of those he married were deported, following the conviction, and a further eight were jailed for breaching immigration law. 150 more, many from Nigeria, were granted the right to stay in the UK following their marriages to mostly Portugese or Dutch nationals.
The number of sham marriages taking place in the UK has exploded in recent years, with 1,741 estimated to have taken place in 2011, up from 400 in 2007 according to Home Office figures.