Essex lorry deaths: Belgian court sentences migrant smuggling leader to 18 years

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By Euronews  with AP, AFP
The 39 victims were found in October 2019 inside a refrigerated container in a lorry.
The 39 victims were found in October 2019 inside a refrigerated container in a lorry.   -   Copyright  AP Photo/Alastair Grant, File   -   Alastair Grant

A Vietnamese migrant smuggling gang leader has been jailed in Belgium over the deaths of 39 people, who were found in a lorry in England.

Vo Van Hong was sentenced to 15 years in prison by a Bruges correctional court on Wednesday for playing a leading role in the smuggling operation.

The bodies of 39 Vietnamese people were found in October 2019 inside a refrigerated lorry container near the southeastern town of Grays.

The victims -- 31 men and 8 women aged between 15 and 44 -- all died of asphyxiation and hyperthermia due to the heat and a lack of oxygen.

The container had arrived in the United Kingdom by ferry from the Belgian port of Zeebrugge. The migrants mostly came from impoverished villages in central Vietnam and had paid people-smugglers to take them to the UK in the hope of a better life.

Van Hong was found guilty of leading "a criminal organisation" in Belgium smuggled a total of "115 people" between September 2018 and May 2020. He had denied the charges but was also fined €920,000.

The 45-year-old was considered in the Belgian investigation to be the leader of the organisation that operated from Brussels.

Seventeen other suspects were also found guilty for their part in the smuggling operation and sentenced to between one and 10 years in prison. Five other defendants were found not guilty.

In the UK, seven men have already been sentenced to between three and 27 years in prison over the deaths of the 39 Vietnamese nationals. Meanwhile, 26 others are facing trial in Paris.