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Afghan man was found dead after 12 hours shut inside shipping container

Published 25/05/2016

Martin McGlinchey and Stephen McLaughlin deny conspiring to facilitate illegal entry into the UK
Martin McGlinchey and Stephen McLaughlin deny conspiring to facilitate illegal entry into the UK

An Afghan asylum seeker was found dead at Tilbury Docks in Essex after being sealed inside a shipping container for more than 12 hours as he and 34 other illegal immigrants were smuggled into the UK, a court has heard.

The Afghan Sikhs, including 15 children, were rescued on August 16 2014 after port workers heard banging noises and cries for help.

The group, which included families, was found in a cramped space on top of plastic barrels full of liquid, with condensation pouring from the ceiling.

Among them was Meet Singh Kapoor, a 40-year-old who died during the overnight crossing from Zeebrugge in Belgium.

Basildon Crown Court was told the refugees, believed to have fled Kabul in Afghanistan after allegedly suffering persecution and living illegally in Belgium and France, were the "human cargo" of a "sophisticated international organisation" of people smugglers.

Northern Irish lorry drivers Stephen McLaughlin, 36, and Martin McGlinchey, 49, are accused of being in the gang's "inner circle" and face charges of helping to smuggle illegal immigrants into the UK.

Jurors were told the two men were part of a team responsible for arranging the transport logistics of the operation, allegedly organising for the container to be sent from Dover to France so it could be picked up by an innocent man before being loaded with illegal immigrants on a Belgian industrial estate.

Prosecuting, Michael Goodwin told the court the plan was foiled when port workers in Tilbury heard the screams of those in the container.

After the operation was sprung, he said, McLaughlin, from Limavady, Londonderry, and McGlinchey, of Coalisland, Co Tyrone, frantically tried to cover their tracks, destroying mobile phones and sim cards that might implicate them.

McGlinchey sold a car he thought could link him to two co-conspirators, Taha Sharif, and a man known only as "Kurd Eng", while McLaughlin booked a short family holiday.

Mr Goodwin said the pair were motivated by financial gain, and that the "very considerable risks" involved meant they would have made a lot of money if the plan had been successful.

He said: "The prosecution case is that both McLaughlin and McGlinchey were close and trusted associates and were working with Kurd Eng and Taha Sharif and together formed an inner circle of conspirators responsible for the transport and haulage aspect of this conspiracy."

The two men are facing a retrial, and deny conspiring to facilitate illegal entry into the UK between June 1 and September 5 2014.

At the previous trial last year Sharif, a Kurd, was found guilty of the same charge while Timothy Murphy, who drove the container through Belgium and France, was found to be an "innocent dupe" and was acquitted. Kurd Eng remains at large.

The court heard that on August 15 Mr Murphy had picked up the container - falsely registered as carrying a consignment of foodstuffs - from Calais and drove it to an industrial estate in the Belgian city of Lokeren, in Flanders, where the Afghans had been asked to meet.

Sharif met up with one of the asylum seekers, Waheed Rahimi, who helped with the logistics, and after the Afghans were driven around in vans to disorientate them or pick up more immigrants, they were loaded onto the container and sealed in, crammed into a space just 4ft high on top of the plastic barrels.

After, Mr Murphy, who was unaware that people had been smuggled aboard the container, drove to Zeebrugge - with Sharif following to ensure nothing went wrong - where it was loaded onto a P&O ferry that departed for Tilbury Docks at 10pm.

Police were alerted to screams from the container around 6.20am on August 16 shortly after the ferry docked, and broke open the doors to free the occupants.

They found three of the 26 barrels on board had been opened, with one containing a petroleum-related substance.

The prosecution said the barrels were deliberately loaded on so if the container was stopped before picking up the Afghans it would look like a genuine load, and would also offer some stability for the people inside.

Mr Goodwin said that throughout the operation, from the days before until after the immigrants were rescued, McLaughlin and McGlinchey, together with Sharif and Kurd Eng, were in continual contact via phone and text message.

Phone records also put them in the same locations, Mr Goodwin said, with the four at a meeting in Thurrock on August 5.

Mobile phone "cell-siting" showed that after the container was discovered, McGlinchey and Sharif were together in Purfleet, and the pair were later joined by Kurd Eng on the A127 in Essex as they hurriedly discussed how to distance themselves from the conspiracy.

Jurors were previously told that an earlier alleged smuggling operation had been thwarted the week before when 12 Afghans were discovered hidden in lockers on a lorry being driven by Mr Murphy at Coquelles in France.

Defending McLaughlin, Mark Harries said there was a "legitimate explanation" for his phone calls and that he was never in contact with Kurd Eng or Sharif, that the cell-site evidence is "vague and ambitious" and does not support suggestions he was at meetings with the other alleged conspirators, and that his business dealings accounted for his movements.

Representing McGlinchey, Anu Mohindru said his client disputed very little of the prosecution's case, but said he was smuggling alcohol, rather than asylum seekers.

He told the court: "Any people-smuggling was done without his knowledge. In his mind it was alcohol, not people."

The case continues on Thursday, and is expected to last four weeks.

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