Kecskemét (Hungary) (AFP) – Four people traffickers involved in the gruesome deaths of 71 migrants in a truck abandoned on an Austrian highway in 2015 were jailed for 25 years Thursday, in a case that sparked international revulsion.
The ruling followed a year-long trial in Hungary, which took over the proceedings from Vienna after it emerged that the migrants had suffocated on Hungarian soil.
Prosecutors, who had sought life terms without parole, immediately appealed the sentences, arguing that they were too lenient.
Ten other suspects were also found guilty over the deaths and handed prison sentences of up to 12 years in the packed courtroom in the southern town of Kecskemet. Three were tried in absentia.
The bodies of 59 men, eight women and four children — including a baby girl — were already in an advanced state of decomposition when they were discovered in an abandoned poultry refrigerator lorry on August 27, 2017.
Investigations showed they had been dead for two days, suffocating shortly after being picked up in Hungary, then a key transit country on the Balkan migrant trail.
Burly guards in balaclavas and bullet-proof vests stood watch as the verdicts were read out.
The defendants remained stony-faced, although the ringleader, Afghan national Samsoor Lahoo, was later seen smiling at reporters.
The men were accused of forming a trafficking gang based in Budapest which smuggled more than 1,200 people into western Europe at the height of the continent’s 2015 migrant crisis.
– ‘Torture under the law’ –
Lahoo and the other mostly Bulgarian suspects denied knowing that the migrants were dying in the back of the truck.
But evidence presented to the court indicated they had been aware of what was happening.
“The four main accused knew that inaction on their part could lead to the deaths of the victims,” Judge Janos Jadi said.
“It’s clear that the defendants were well aware that these vehicles were not suited for human passengers, this is torture under the law even if the passengers were not beaten by the smugglers.”
The victims — from Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan — were among hundreds of thousands of desperate people fleeing war and misery in the Middle East and elsewhere in 2015, triggering Europe’s worst migrant crisis since World War II.
The deaths led a shocked German Chancellor Angela Merkel to announce she would open her country’s doors, eventually allowing in more than one million refugees, mostly from Syria.
The verdicts come at a time when migration is once again under the spotlight, with Merkel facing a rebellion from hardliners in her own coalition over refugee policy.
The fate of the Aquarius ship, which was left stranded for two days in the Mediterranean with 629 rescued migrants after Italy refused to allow it to dock, has also sparked a war of words among European allies.
– ‘Let them die’ –
Hungarian officials said the ring was a professional network with more than 15 vehicles used to transport refugees trekking up from Greece along the western Balkans to Europe.
The gang had smuggled more than 1,100 people from Hungary into Austria since February 2015, charging up to 1,500 euros ($1,760) a head.
Lahoo, himself a young Afghan aged 31 who had fled his troubled homeland, told the court in a final statement that he “had not wanted anyone’s death”.
But police intercepts of phone calls revealed he had ordered the truck drivers not to open the doors.
“Let them die instead. That’s an order,” Lahoo allegedly says in one of the calls.
“If they die, let him dump them in a forest in Germany.”
Challenged with this evidence, Lahoo told the court they were simply “thoughtless remarks”.
– ‘Endless greed’ –
Hungary’s legislation regarding trafficking was tightened in the aftermath of the deaths.
The judge said his sentences were more lenient than prosecutors had requested because he was applying the law that was in force at the time of the crime.
“The court recognises that the defendants have displayed genuine remorse”, he said, and that the fact that some of them had small children had also been taken into account.
Prosecutor Gabor Schmidt said Lahoo showed only “endless greed” and “frightening indifference” to the migrants desperate to get to Europe.
“The ruling does not sufficiently reflect the seriousness of the crime,” he told the court.