Life in prison for traffickers responsible for 71 migrant deaths

Court in Hungary extends sentences awarded over 2015 suffocation deaths in a refrigerated lorry

A policeman stands guard as defendants listen to the final verdict in their trial for the gruesome deaths of 71 migrants who suffocated in a lorry nearly four years ago on June 20, 2019 at a court in Szeged, Hungary.  The victims, 59 men, eight women and four children, including a baby, came from Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan, joining hundreds of thousands like them trying to reach Germany in 2015.  / AFP / ATTILA KISBENEDEK

A Hungarian court has extended the prison sentences of four human traffickers convicted last year for their roles in the deaths of 71 migrants who were found suffocated in the back of a lorry on a highway in Austria in 2015.

The appeals court in the southern city of Szeged on Thursday's sentenced an Afghan man and two Bulgarian accomplices to life in prison without the possibility of parole, while another Bulgarian man was given a life sentence with the possibility of parole after 30 years.

A year ago, all four had been given 25-year sentences for belonging to a criminal organisation and committing multiple crimes, including human smuggling and manslaughter.

Ten other defendants, mostly Bulgarians, were given prison terms ranging between four and 12 years.

Fifty-nine men, eight women and four children from Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan suffocated in the back of a refrigerated lorry with Hungarian license plates. The truck was found abandoned in the emergency lane of a highway near Parndorf, Austria, close to the Hungarian border, on August 27, 2015.

FILE - In this Thursday, Aug. 27, 2015 file photo, investigators stand near an abandoned truck on the shoulder of Highway A4 near Parndorf, Austria, south of Vienna. A Hungarian court has extended the prison sentences of four human traffickers convicted last year for their roles in a 2015 in which 71 migrants suffocated to death in the back of a refrigerated truck found on a highway in Austria. (AP Photo/Ronald Zak, file)

The migrants had boarded the lorry near the village of Morahalom, at Hungary's southern border with Serbia, before heading towards Austria. According to prosecutors, the 71 victims "suffocated in horrendous conditions three hours after the departure", while still in Hungary.

Judge Erik Mezolaki said that the "horror" that took place in the truck was "unimaginable".

"Seven-one people died a painful death in the truck's cargo box," the judge said while announcing the ruling.

"They lived through having their relatives, children and acquaintances die one after the other next to them while facing the unavoidable fact that this is the fate that awaits them, too. Just because for the human traffickers it was more important to avoid getting caught than the lives of 71 people," he said.

About 400,000 migrants and refugees passed through Hungary in 2015 on their way to Germany and other destinations in western Europe. The migrant flow was diverted and slowed in part by razor-wire fences built on the southern borders late that year by the government of Prime Minister Viktor Orban.