Lorry drivers a 'necessary cog' in people-smuggling syndicate, trial told
Two Northern Irish lorry drivers were a "necessary cog" in an international people-smuggling syndicate whose operations led to Afghan asylum seekers being found in a shipping container at an Essex port, a court has heard.
Meet Singh Kapoor was one of 35 Afghan Sikhs, including 15 children, found inside the container at Tilbury Docks on August 16 2014.
The 40-year-old died during an overnight crossing from Zeebrugge in Belgium, but the rest survived the cramped journey.
The refugees are believed to have fled Kabul in Afghanistan after suffering alleged persecution and were living illegally in Belgium and France.
Stephen McLaughlin, 36, and Martin McGlinchey, 49, are accused of helping to smuggle illegal immigrants into the UK.
Jurors were told that another smuggling attempt was thwarted less than two weeks earlier when an Irish driver, Timothy Murphy, employed by McLaughlin and McGlinchey, was stopped in France while carrying a load of frozen chips, and was found with 12 Afghans hidden aboard his lorry.
Basildon Crown Court heard that McLaughlin, from Limavady, Londonderry, and McGlinchey, of Coalisland, Co Tyrone, were part of a "large and organised" operation smuggling immigrants from the continent to the UK on legitimate crossings.
Prosecuting, Michael Goodwin told the jury: "We are going to invite you to conclude that both defendants were a necessary cog in the wheel that made this smuggling operation work and that each knew what was going on and that there is no innocent explanation for their movements, actions, telephone calls and meetings."
Jurors were told the two men are facing a retrial, and the pair deny conspiring to facilitate illegal entry into the UK between June 1 and September 5 2014.
Mr Murphy was cleared of the same charge during a trial last year, while a Kurdish man, Taha Sharif, was found guilty. A fifth man, known only as "Kurd Eng", remains at large.
The court heard McLaughlin and McGlinchey worked as a team and used their expertise in haulage and their access to vehicles, trailers and containers to run the transportation side of the conspiracy.
Kurd Eng was "heavily involved" as a facilitator, while Mr Murphy, who lived in Belgium, was merely an "innocent dupe", paid to haul shipments by his fellow Irishmen and was a "fall guy" who unwittingly carried illegal immigrants, the court heard.
Jurors also heard Sharif made several trips from his Tottenham home back and forth to France throughout June and July on visits linked to people smuggling.
Mr Goodwin told the jury the two defendants and the other men used 17 mobile phones in the weeks leading up to the two smuggling attempts, six owned by McGlinchey alone, and that after the Tilbury container was discovered the pair destroyed handsets and sim cards.
The court heard the men, along with their alleged co-conspirators, exchanged scores of phone calls which Mr Goodwin said was evidence that operations were being planned.
He said: "It is the pattern of telephone calls that prove that each of these defendants knew what was going on and that they were involved in people smuggling. You will have to decide whether there is an innocent explanation."
The court heard that on August 5 McGlinchey and McLaughlin took a ferry from Northern Ireland to Holyhead, North Wales, and drove down to Essex where they allegedly met Kurd Eng and Sharif.
Mr Goodwin said: "It is the Crown's case that by this stage operations on August 5 and 15 were well under way."
The court heard phone records showed the four men were all in the Thurrock area that evening - though McLaughlin denies having been at the meeting - which Mr Goodwin said was to make sure they could trust each other and to discuss a smuggling operation that night and another the following week.
He said: "It is no coincidence that the UK syndicate of individuals running this people smuggling operation were all at the same time in the same place while Mr Murphy was in Belgium to collect his load."
Shortly after the meeting, Mr Murphy picked up a shipment of frozen chips and drove towards Coquelles near Calais, to bring his haul to England, the court heard.
But records from his lorry's tachograph show that during the journey it was stationary for two hours, during which 12 Afghans were allegedly hidden on board.
Mr Goodwin said: "We suggest that it was during this two-hour period that the clandestines were loaded into the underneath of the vehicle into the pallet lockers".
Kurd Eng managed the loading of the Afghans on to the lorry, phoning McGlinchey to update him, while McGlinchey called Mr Murphy to make sure he was well away from the scene and kept oblivious, jurors were told.
But the lorry was stopped when it reached the port and authorities fined Mr Murphy.
Less than two weeks later the defendants arranged for a container to be shipped to Belgium, which Mr Goodwin said was loaded with water containers to give the appearance of having a genuine load.
In the days before the operation Sharif travelled to Belgium to help load the immigrants and ensure Mr Murphy did not know what was going on, the court heard.
The court was told McGlinchey drove the container down to Dover, while McLaughlin booked it on to a Channel crossing.
But the court heard McGlinchey deliberately tried to cover his tracks by not logging the container's serial number with port officials and lying about his vehicle's registration number.
Some of the Afghans who were found in the shipping container - whose asylum claims are still being determined - will give evidence in the case.
The trial continues on Wednesday.