Bruges, Belgium—Two years after 39 Vietnamese migrants died aboard a truck that travelled to Britain, Belgium will on Wednesday start the trial of 23 people suspected of involvement in a human-smuggling ring.
The proceedings, in a courtroom in the city of Bruges, follow convictions handed down in Britain in January to seven men, several for manslaughter. They were given prison sentences ranging from three years to 27 years.
In Vietnam, in September last year, four men were sent to prison in connection with the case. Their sentences ranged from two and a half years to seven and a half years.
The Bruges trial will focus on the fact that the truck left for Britain on October 22, 2019 from Anderlecht, a neighbourhood on Brussels’ western outskirts, where the ring allegedly had a safe-house to collect migrants.
The bodies of the migrants — 31 men and eight women aged 15 to 44 and all from Vietnam — were discovered the next day in Britain, when the container they were in was opened in Grays, an industrial area in Essex, just east of London.
They had suffocated in extremely hot weather as the truck had crossed by sea. They had tried, without success, to pierce the metal container’s roof with a pole.
The macabre crime triggered police investigations on both sides of the Channel, and on May 26, 2020 Belgian authorities raided several addresses, most in the Brussels region, to round up Vietnamese suspected of links to the people-smuggling outfit.
The trial of the 23 who were prosecuted is expected to last two days but it may take several weeks before the verdict is delivered.
The main defendant is a 45-year-old Vietnamese man charged with “running a criminal organisation” and faces up to 15 years in prison if convicted. He denies all involvement.
The others are in the dock for allegedly participating in the activities of a criminal organisation, which prosecutors say was specialised in clandestinely transporting people into Britain.
The 2019 deaths shone a light on the risks faced by those turning to unscrupulous people smugglers.
Many of the migrants in the truck came from a poor region in the centre of Vietnam. Families there can rack up debts of thousands of dollars to have one member of their family smuggled into Britain in the hope they can secure a better life.
The Belgian investigation is not yet closed, with two more suspects still being sought according to prosecutors.
Another, a Vietnamese man who was a minor at the time of the crime, is facing a separate legal procedure.
Belgian authorities, who early last year conducted their investigation with counterparts in France — where 13 people were charged — established that the alleged ring daily transported dozens of migrants coming from Southeast Asia.
Prosecutors say the smugglers in Belgium had connections in France, the Netherlands, and Germany, and that it was believed some of the defendants continued their illegal activities after the October 2019 tragedy.