Tilbury Docks people smuggling trial: Northern Ireland lorry drivers 'treated Afghan migrants as freight', court hears
35 distressed immigrants were discovered packed into a cramped shipping container with barrels
Four men - including three from Northern Ireland - accused of illegally transporting 35 immigrants into the UK in a shipping container were part of a "large and organised" smuggling syndicate which treated human beings as "freight", a court has heard.
Meet Singh Kapoor, 40, was found dead in the shipping container at Tilbury Docks in Essex on August 16. He was among a group of 35 immigrants, including 15 children. The rest survived the ordeal.
Four men deny organising the operation in a trial at Basildon Crown Court.
Jurors heard the group were found distressed and in cramped conditions.
Prosecutor Michael Goodwin said the men were part of a syndicate which had been foiled attempting to break UK immigration laws on at least one previous occasion. On August 5, 12 Afghan nationals had been found concealed in a lorry's panic lockers at a terminal in Coquelles, France.
Mr Goodwin added: "This syndicate was responsible for at least two operations committed some 11 days apart intended to breach UK immigration controls. Both occasions in fact failed and the smuggling was detected.
"This operation involved effectively smuggling human beings into this country as freight."
Stephen McLaughlin, 34, of Limavady, Londonderry; Timothy Murphy, 33, of Elmgrove, Londonderry; Martin McGlinchey, 47, of Derryloughan Road, Coalisland, County Tyrone; and Taha Sharif, 38, who is Kurdish, have all pleaded not guilty to conspiracy to facilitate illegal entry into the UK.
The group of migrants, whose ages ranged from 16 months to 72 years old, are Afghan Sikhs many of whom had fled persecution in their homeland.
Mr Goodwin said the second smuggling attempt was uncovered when dock workers heard noises inside the container after it arrived on a ship from Zeebrugge, Belgium.
He added: "Dock workers heard knocking and shouting coming from inside the container which was still on board the ship having docked at about 6am.
"The police broke the seal and rear doors and the 35 illegal entrants were found on board in a distressed state.
"They were found to be suffering from breathing difficulties and other difficulties having been locked in a confined space since the previous day.
"There were many barrels stacked on the floor of the container, leaving only about four foot of space above for the people being smuggled.
"One of the people had died during the crossing overnight."
Mr Goodwin said the defendants had taken huge risks but had a "substantial financial motive".
"A large and well organised operation does not come cheap and some of the clandestines and their families had paid substantial amounts of money," he added.
All of the immigrants are now claiming asylum in the UK, the court heard.
The prosecutor said that some of those inside the container had been in regular contact with a fifth man, known only as Kurdeng - the name found saved in one of the immigrant's mobile phones.
Mr Goodwin said: "The investigation has been unable able to attribute that phone to a particular, identifiable individual.
"This person undoubtedly, played a leading role and, with the other defendants, was heavily involved in this conspiracy."
He said that the group of Afghans was made up of several smaller groups and families who were all on the run in various parts of Europe and brought together by the syndicate.
Murphy drove the lorry carrying the container to Zeebrugge followed by Sharif who was acting as "backup" to ensure nothing went wrong after the failed August 5 attempt, jurors heard.
The other men were in regular contact to ensure the operation went smoothly, Mr Goodwin said.
He added: "This was a professional operation and, like any legitimate business or operation, each person played a vital role in the running of this conspiracy."
The court heard the defendants used a number of different telephones to avoid detection.
Many of these phones were disposed off after the container was uncovered and police have not been able to find them.
But the movement of the phones across Europe has been tracked by detectives.