Two British men were found guilty of killing 39 Vietnamese migrants who died after being smuggled into the UK in the back of a lorry.
A jury at London's Old Bailey found lorry driver Eamonn Harrison and organiser Gheorghe Nica guilty of manslaughter on Monday after a high profile, two-month trial that almost collapsed after an “ill-advised” tweet by the UK's Home Secretary Priti Patel.
She described the men as "ruthless criminals" while the trial was ongoing and before they had been convicted, under UK law putting the trial in jeopardy by potentially influencing the jurors.
The deaths shocked Britain and Vietnam and highlighted the illicit global trade that sends the poor of Asia, Africa and the Middle East on perilous journeys to the West.
The victims, including two 15-year-old boys, were mostly from Ha Tinh and the neighbouring Nghe An province, where poor job prospects and opportunistic smuggling gangs fuel migration.
The bodies were discovered in October 2019 in a container at the back of a lorry on an industrial estate in Grays, Essex, about 30km east of London. Each had paid more than £10,000 to be smuggled into the UK. They had desperately tried to raise the alarm as they suffocated inside the refrigerated unit.
Harrison, known as the “man on the Continent”, was stopped almost 18 months before the tragedy and fined after being caught at the Channel Tunnel in France with 18 Vietnamese migrants in his trailer. The network, led by Nica and haulage owner Ronan Hughes, had been operating for at least 18 months.
Detective Chief Inspector Daniel Stoten, of Essex Police, said the gang were “greedy but complacent”.
“You would not transport animals in that way but they were quite happy to do that and put them at significant risk,” he said.
Harrison, from County Down, Northern Ireland, was also convicted of conspiracy to assist unlawful immigration. Nica, from Basildon, Essex, admitted to the same charge.
Two other defendants, lorry driver Christopher Kennedy and Valentin Calota, were found guilty of conspiracy to assist unlawful immigration.
In April, lorry driver Maurice Robinson and Hughes admitted the manslaughter of the migrants, who were believed to have boarded the container in northern France before it was driven to Zeebrugge in Belgium.
The defendants, aged between 24 and 36, were found guilty of organising and brokering illegal emigration after a one-day trial.
In the UK the maximum sentence for people-smuggling is 14 years in prison, with manslaughter carrying a possible life sentence.