By Peter Nicholls
GRAYS, England (Reuters) – Police investigating the deaths of 39 people, believed to be Chinese nationals, found in a truck near London said they had arrested two people on Friday on suspicion of human trafficking and continued to question the driver as a murder suspect.
As China called on Britain to seek “severe punishment” for those involved in the deaths, police said they had detained a man and a woman, both aged 38, in Warrington, northwest England, on suspicion of conspiracy to traffic people and of 39 counts of manslaughter.
The 25-year-old truck driver remains in custody after being arrested following the grim discovery of the bodies in the back of his refrigerated truck in the early hours of Wednesday.
He has not been formally identified but a source familiar with the investigation named him as Mo Robinson from the Portadown area of Northern Ireland. Detectives will decide later whether to charge him with an offence, release him or ask a court for more time to question him.
Late on Thursday, British authorities moved 11 of the victims – 31 men and eight women – to a hospital mortuary from a secure location at docks near the industrial estate in Grays about 20 miles (30 km) east of London where the bodies were found.
Post-mortem examinations were beginning to determine how exactly they died while forensic experts sought to identify the deceased, which police warned would be a lengthy process.
The British police said they believed the victims were Chinese and China’s Embassy in London said it had sent a team to Essex. Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said police had not yet been able to verify the nationalities of the deceased.
“We hope that the British side can as soon as possible confirm and verify the identities of the victims, ascertain what happened and severely punish criminals involved in the case,” she told a daily news briefing.
For years, illegal immigrants have attempted to reach Britain stowed away in trucks, often from the European mainland. In 2000, 58 Chinese were found dead in a tomato truck at the port of Dover.
China’s Global Times, which is published by the ruling Communist Party’s official People’s Daily, said in a Friday editorial that Britain should bear some responsibility for the deaths.
“It is clear that Britain and relevant European countries have not fulfilled their responsibility to protect these people from such a death,” the widely read tabloid said.
It added that Britain appeared not to have learned its lesson from the Dover incident two decades ago.
“Could the British and European people ask themselves why they have not been able to avoid a similar tragedy … Did they take all the serious remedial action that they could have?” it said.
The police investigation is focused on the movement of the trailer prior to its arrival at Purfleet docks near Grays little more than an hour before the bodies were found, and on who was behind the suspected human trafficking.
“This is the largest investigation of its kind Essex Police has ever had to conduct and it is likely to take some considerable time to come to a conclusion,” Essex Chief Constable Ben-Julian Harrington said.
His force has said their priority was ensuring respect and compassion in treatment of the victims.
Irish company Global Trailer Rentals said it owned the trailer and had rented it out on Oct. 15. The firm said it was unaware of what it was to be used for.
The refrigeration unit had travelled to Britain from Zeebrugge in Belgium and the town’s chairman, Dirk de Fauw, said he believed the victims died in the trailer before it arrived in the Belgian port.
The Times newspaper reported that GPS data showed the container had arrived at the Belgian port at 2.49 p.m. local time on Tuesday before later making the 10-hour sea crossing to Britain.
Police said the cab unit of the truck was driven over from Dublin on Sunday, crossing the Irish Sea by ship and entering Britain in North Wales. It picked up the trailer in Purfleet shortly after midnight on Wednesday.
The National Crime Agency, which targets serious and organised crime, said it was helping the investigation and working urgently to identify any gangs involved.
The head of the Road Haulage Association said traffickers were “upping their game” and closer cooperation with European nations was needed, although that may be complicated by Britain’s planned exit from the European Union.
(Additional reporting by Ben Blanchard in Beijing; Writing by Michael Holden; Editing by Guy Faulconbridge and Frances Kerry)