Four people smugglers jailed in France for deaths of Iranian family in Channel

Small boat was carrying more than 20 migrants when it capsized off Dunkirk, northern France

Artin and his father, Rasoul Iran-Nejad, left, died with family members Shiva Mohammad Panahi, Anita and Armin
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A French court has sentenced four men for their roles in an attempted small boat English Channel crossing that led to the deaths of an Iranian family of five.

A major search-and-rescue operation was launched in October 2020 when the boat, which was carrying more than 20 migrants, capsized off the coast of Dunkirk.

Rasoul Iran-Nejad, 35, his wife Shiva Mohammad Panahi, 35, and their three children Anita, 9, Armin, 6, and Artin, 15 months all died in the incident.

Artin’s body was recovered two months later when it washed up on the coast of Norway. Two other people who were believed to be on the boat have never been found.

The incident prompted a major criminal investigation, led by the French authorities and supported by the UK's National Crime Agency (NCA).

One of the suspects, Assalan Ghorbani, who was suspected of having piloted the boat, was arrested by French authorities a few days after the event.

During the course of the investigation the NCA provided significant support to the French team investigating the people smuggling attempt.

In June 2021 the NCA received intelligence that one of the key suspects in the inquiry, Rauf Perot Rahimifar, was in Denmark and in the process of making plans to leave the country and return to Iran.

This was immediately passed to the French authorities, enabling a judge to authorise a European Arrest Warrant, which led to his arrest by the Danish police that same day.

He was eventually extradited to France to face trial.

Now, a court in Dunkirk has convicted and sentenced the four for their roles in the attempts and the deaths of the family.

Ringleader Rahimifar received a nine-year jail sentence for arranging the attempt, while gang member Mostafa Kakelahi got seven years.

Hoshiar Khezri was sentenced to five years for bringing the boat used from Denmark to France, while boat pilot Assalan Ghorbani was handed a two-year sentence.

“The events of October 2020 were tragic in so many ways, and demonstrate both the terrible dangers of these crossings and the callous nature of the criminals involved," NCA Director of Threat Leadership Chris Farrimond said.

“These people smugglers saw this family as nothing more than a commodity to be profited from, and cared nothing for their safety or welfare.

“Today’s convictions highlight the close co-operation between UK and French authorities in targeting these criminal networks, and shows that no matter where they operate we will take action to stop them and bring them to justice.”

Since the Anglo-French Joint Intelligence Centre was established in July 2020, 59 organised criminal groups in France involved in small-boat crossings have been dismantled.

In addition, the NCA has a team of liaison officers based in France working on investigative activity with French partners as part of Project Invigor, the UK’s organised immigration crime taskforce, and on wider threats that require Anglo-French law enforcement co-operation.

Home Secretary Suella Braverman said: “This case is another tragic reminder of how people can lose their lives at the hands of the criminals behind these crossings.

“I’m grateful to the NCA for the important role they have played in supporting this investigation, working in tandem with our French partners.

“We will stop at nothing to disrupt the gangs profiting from this lethal trade and ensure they are brought to justice.”

The NCA has officers working side by side with their counterparts in northern France to maximise the impact on organised crime, not just by exchanging intelligence, but by working with the French police to build proactive and reactive investigations for judicial adoption, with a particular focus on the small- boat threat.

Updated: January 25, 2023, 11:31 AM
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