UK trial over deaths of 39 Vietnamese migrants in truck begins

LONDON (AFP): Thirty-nine Vietnamese migrants suffocated to death in "unbearable" heat in a container truck after a people-smuggling operation went catastrophically wrong, a London court heard on Wednesday (Oct 7). The trial opened at the Old Bailey of four men accused in connection with the deaths of 31 Vietnamese men and eight women -- 10 among them teenagers, including two 15-year-old boys -- whose bodies were found in the lorry in southeast England last October. The truck was refrigerated but the cooling system was turned off, and temperatures reached an "unbearable" 38.5 degrees Celsius (101 degrees Fahrenheit) with the migrants sealed inside in the dark for at least 12 hours, prosecutor Bill Emlyn Jones said.

He said the desperate migrants were unable to get a phone signal inside the container. But one of them, a 28-year-old woman Pham Thi Ngoc Oanh, wrote a text message that was found later on her phone, undelivered: "Maybe going to die in the container, can't breathe any more dear." Eamonn Harrison, 23, is accused of having driven the lorry trailer to the Belgian port of Zeebrugge before it sailed to the port of Purfleet in Essex, southeast England.

He faces 39 counts of manslaughter and one count of conspiracy to assist unlawful immigration, along with 43-year-old Gheorge Nica. Valentin Calota, 37, and Christopher Kennedy, 24, are charged with being part of the people-smuggling conspiracy. All four have pleaded not guilty.

The prosecutor said the people-smuggling gang had operated successful runs before the one in October went "dreadfully wrong". He said that after Harrison drove the container to Zeebrugge, it was picked up by another lorry driver, Maurice Robinson, at Purfleet just after midnight on Oct 23. By then, Emlyn Jones said the migrants had gone at least 12 hours since "any meaningful amount of fresh air had been let into the sealed container".

Robinson knew he had to check on the occupants, having been sent a message from his boss to "give them air quickly, but don't let them out". "Robinson drove out of Purfleet port and almost immediately stopped and opened the doors at the back," Emlyn Jones said. "What he found must haunt him still.

For the 39 men and women inside, that lorry had become their tomb."

Robinson and haulage company boss Ronan Hughes have pleaded guilty to the manslaughters and the people-smuggling plot, the court heard.

The trial is expected to last up to six weeks.

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