23 alleged smugglers go on trial in Belgium over Essex lorry deaths

Vietnamese ‘gang leader who sent 39 of his own countrymen to their deaths’: 23 ‘smugglers’ go on trial in Belgium over migrants found suffocated in the back of a lorry in Essex

  • 23 men on trial in Belgium accused of being part of gang that smuggled 39 Vietnamese migrants to the UK in 2019, all of whom suffocated to death in the back of a refrigerated lorry
  • Vo Vang Hong, 45, accused of being ringleader who ran safehouse in Belgium which victims passed through
  • Ten of the accused were taxi drivers in Brussels who allegedly helped ferry migrants to the safe house
  • 12 are Vietnamese or Vietnamese-Belgians and accused of acting as grocery shoppers or safehouse guards 

By Chris Pleasance for MailOnline

Published: 12:15, 15 December 2021 | Updated: 13:57, 15 December 2021

A Vietnamese migrant and alleged gang leader accused of sending 39 of his own countrymen to their deaths in the back of an overcrowded lorry discovered in Essex in 2019 has gone on trial in Belgium today.

Vo Vang Hong, 45, is facing 15 years in jail for allegedly running a safehouse located above a pizzeria in Anderlecht, a district of Brussels, that many of the migrants passed through before being locked inside the refrigerated lorry trailer that would ultimately become their tomb.

He appeared in court in Bruges today alongside 22 other defendants accused of being part of the gang or working for it. Twelve of the defendants are also Vietnamese or Vietnamese-Belgian, and are alleged to have worked as safehouse guards or grocery shoppers who fetched food for migrants being smuggled.

Ten of the accused – three Belgians, six Moroccans and an Armenian – were taxi drivers in Brussels and are accused of ferrying people to the safe house. 

Collectively, they are accused of involvement in ‘several dozen smuggling activities’ that illegally brought at least 100 people to the UK going back to September 2018.

23 men went on trial today in Belgium accused of belonging to or working with a people smuggling gang linked to the deaths of 39 Vietnamese migrants in a lorry in Essex in 2019

23 alleged smugglers go on trial in Belgium over Essex lorry deaths

One of the suspects – Vo Vang Hong, 45 – is accused of being the gang boss who ran a safe house. Ten are taxi drivers alleged to have driven migrants to the safe house, and the other 12 are accused of being part of ‘dozens’ of smuggling operations dating to September 2018 

Another man, also Vietnamese, has been charged over the deaths but is facing a separate legal process because he was a minor at the time. 

Presenting the case in court, one prosecutor recalled the haunting image of a bloody handprint on the door of the trailer in which the migrants died. 

The 23 were arrested in May 2020, as Belgian police swooped on the gang seven months after the lorry deaths. 

Prosecutors say they had been operating out of an apartment run by Hong that was located above a pizzeria on Ninoofsesteenweg, the main highway cutting through the Anderlecht district.

Police had been tracking the gang for some time before the ill-fated migrants passed through the safehouse, investigators said, but had not amassed enough evidence to raid the property in the wake of the tragedy.

Prosecutors say the smugglers had connections in France, the Netherlands and Germany, and that it was believed some of the defendants continued their illegal activities after the October 2019 tragedy. 

They said the ‘very well organised’ gang specialised in clandestinely transporting people into Europe then Britain for a total fee of GBP20,000 each.

They said the gang used an Irish trucking company that regularly imported Vietnamese biscuits to get the migrants across the Channel, and that Vietnamese gang members took charge of them once they got to Britain.

In previous court documents, prosecutors laid out the route the migrants had taken to the UK which ended up with them dead.

On October 21, two days before the bodies were found, prosecutors say migrants who had been brought to Hong were driven Paris.

Then – the following day – they were taken to Bierne in northern France where they were ordered inside the refrigerated lorry. 

23 alleged smugglers go on trial in Belgium over Essex lorry deaths

Belgium launched an investigation into the deaths after it emerged the container in which the migrants died originated in the port of Zeebrugge (pictured, in court today)

Driver Eamonn Harrison, 23 and from Northern Ireland, then drove the trailer back to Belgium and to the port of Zeebrugge where it was left on the dock to be loaded on to a ferry bound for Purfleet, in Essex.

 During the journey, temperatures inside the trailer soared to 38.5C and oxygen levels dropped near-zero, causing the 39 people inside to suffocate.

Many sent desperate last texts or voice messages to loved ones as they died, while at least one grabbed hold of a metal pole and tried to batter their way out. 

A separate trial in the UK established the trailer was then picked up by driver Maurice Robinson, also from Northern Ireland, who was texted by boss Ronan Hughes telling him to ‘open it and give them some air but don’t let them out’.

Robinson sent a thumbs up emoji back and soon pulled over on an industrial estate in Grays, Essex, and opened the container doors – 12 hours after they were sealed. 

During the trial, jurors saw horrifying footage of steam gushing from the container as Robinson opened it. He then sent a message to Hughes saying: ‘They’re f***** dead.’

Robinson then re-sealed the lorry and drove around for seven minutes before returning to the same industrial estate and parking up a second time.

He opened the read doors again, then had a call with Hughes.

A short time later, fixer Gheorghe Nica became involved in the calls, as did Christopher Kennedy, another lorry driver involved in the operation.

For 15 minutes, the four-some called and texted one-another while trying to work out what to do.

Robinson eventually called police and requested an ambulance.  

Emergency services rushed to the scene, but could do nothing to save the victims. 

Police described arriving to an horrific scene of 39 bodies – 31 men and eight women, ten of whom were teenagers and the youngest of whom were 15-year-old twins – piled up in the trailer.

Most had partially undressed in order to keep cool as the temperature climbed, before collapsing on the floor. 

Police arrested Robinson at the scene and launched an investigation, as other members of the gang tried to cover their tracks.

Nica and two other gang members, Marius Draghici and Valentin Calota, fled the UK for Romania where they were later arrested.

Kennedy was arrested in November as he drove a truck on the M40, while Hughes and Harrison are extradited from Ireland the following June.

In October, all were hauled before the Old Bailey in London on charges ranging from manslaughter to criminal conspiracy.

In January this year, all were sentenced for their crimes. 

23 alleged smugglers go on trial in Belgium over Essex lorry deaths

The victims included 31 men and eight women, ten of whom were teenagers and the youngest of whom were 15-year-old twins

23 alleged smugglers go on trial in Belgium over Essex lorry deaths

The migrants suffocated to death in the container on the back of this lorry in 38.5C temperatures as they crossed the Channel from Belgium to Essex 

23 alleged smugglers go on trial in Belgium over Essex lorry deaths

Realising their gruesome fate, at least one migrant had tried to batter their way out of the lorry with a metal pole (damage pictured) while others sent heartbreaking messages to families 

The court heard that Harrison, 23, and Robinson, 26 – together with Nica, 43 – were paid by Ronan Hughes, 40, to ferry non-EU citizens into the UK.

Hughes headed the million-pound people-smuggling ring which used death trap lorries on multiple occasions – charging his human cargo up to GBP14,000 a head for a ‘VIP’ service. 

Hughes was jailed for 20 years, while fixer Nica – who arranged transport from Essex to London for the foreign nationals – was sentenced to 27.

Robinson was handed a 13-year and four-month sentence, while Harrison – who dropped off the trailer in Zeebrugge – was jailed for 18 years.

Hong is facing up to 15 years in jail if found guilty of manslaughter in Belgium.

He admits running the safe house but denies being the ringleader of the gang, and says he had no idea the people staying with him were being smuggled.

The trial is expected to last two days, but it could be weeks before a verdict.

The accused were previously in court in October, when they entered their pleas.

Seven men – including Harrison and Robinson – have already been jailed in the UK for their part in the operation.

Ronan Hughes and Gheorghe Nica, who were found guilty of orchestrating the smuggling operation, were sentenced to 20 years and 27 years respectively.

Harrison was given 18 years and Robinson was given 13 years. Three others – Christopher Kennedy, Valentin Calota and Alexandru-Ovidiu Hanga – were given between three years and seven years.

Another investigation in Vietnam established that most of the migrants had come from a poor central region of the country, and had been lured into making the dangerous journey by local fixers assuring them of a better life overseas.

The victims had stumped up around GBP10,000 each for the trip, with their families mostly borrowing the money on the promise to pay it back once their relatives reached the UK, began working and sent cash home to them.

Four men aged between 26 and 36 were eventually found guilty of brokering illegal migration in Vietnam, and jailed for between two and a half years and seven years.

23 alleged smugglers go on trial in Belgium over Essex lorry deaths 23 alleged smugglers go on trial in Belgium over Essex lorry deaths

Seven men have been jailed in the UK over the deaths, including Ronan Hughes (left) who was jailed for 20 years and Maurice Robinson (right) who was sentenced to 13 years

23 alleged smugglers go on trial in Belgium over Essex lorry deaths 23 alleged smugglers go on trial in Belgium over Essex lorry deaths

Fixer Gheorghe Nica, 43 (left), was sentenced to 27 years while driver Eamonn Harrison (right) was jailed for 18 years 

23 alleged smugglers go on trial in Belgium over Essex lorry deaths

Four men aged between 26 and 36 were also jailed in Vietnam for luring the migrants to make trips abroad (pictured, the regions where the victims originated from)