Four members of a people-smuggling gang have each been jailed for 25 years in Hungary for letting 71 people suffocate inside a lorry that was then dumped at the side of an Austrian motorway.
The four men – one Afghan and three Bulgarians – were found guilty of “aggravated murder with particular cruelty” after a year-long trial in the town of Kecskemét, which took over the proceedings from Vienna after it emerged that the migrants suffocated in Hungary.
Ten other suspects were found guilty of various charges and handed prison sentences of between three and 12 years.
The victims – 59 men, eight women and four children, including a baby – came from Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan. Having made their way to the Serbian border with Hungary, they were packed into an air-tight poultry refrigerator lorry, where their pleas to stop for fresh air were ignored.
Realising what had happened, the driver abandoned the lorry. Austrian police later found the bodies piled on top of each other inside. Investigations found they had been dead for two days, having suffocated shortly after being picked up in Hungary, then a key transit country on the Balkan migrant trail.
The deaths in August 2015 led the German chancellor, Angela Merkel, to announce she would open her country’s borders to refugees, eventually allowing in more than one million, mostly from Syria.
Hungarian officials said the Budapest-based ring was a professional network with more than 15 vehicles used to transport refugees who were trekking up from Greece along the western Balkans to Europe. The gang had smuggled more than 1,100 people from Hungary into Austria since February 2015, charging up to €1,500 (now worth £1,300) a head.
The state prosecutor Gabor Schmidt had asked for life terms for the main four accused, and said three should get life without parole under Hungarian law.
The suspects denied knowing their human cargo was dying, but evidence was produced showing they did.
The alleged ringleader, Samsoor Lahoo, 31, told the court in a final statement that he “had not wanted anyone’s death”. But police telephone intercepts of calls revealed he had ordered the truck drivers not to open the doors.
“Let them die instead. That’s an order,” Lahoo said in one of the calls. “If they die, let him dump them in a forest in Germany.”
Challenged with this evidence, Lahoo told the court they were simply “thoughtless remarks”.