A group of men who left 71 migrants to die in the back of a refrigerated truck left abandoned on the side of an Austrian highway were sentenced to 25 years in prison Thursday, more than three years after the gruesome incident.
The discovery of the truck filled with badly decomposing bodies marked one of the darkest days of the region’s worst migrant crisis since World War II, and sparked international outrage.
Inside were the bodies of 59 men, eight women and four children, including a baby. The victims had been traveling from Syria, Iraq, Iran and Afghanistan, in the hope of joining hundreds of thousands of similar migrants attempting to reach Germany.
All but one of the 71 victims were identified.
A court in the Hungarian town of Kecskemét handed down 25-year sentences to four men believed to be the gang’s ringleaders Thursday, stopping short of the life sentences without parole demanded by the prosecution. While the authorities found the truck in Austria, the trial was centered in Kecskemét, where police believed the victims died during the trip.
Fourteen members of the gang were ultimately tried in connection with the deaths, and the ten remaining defendants were each sentenced to somewhere between three and 12 years in prison. Three of the defendants were tried in absentia.
The allegations against the men included torture and “aggravated murder with particular cruelty.”
While the gang members admitted being involved in people smuggling, the ringleaders claimed they were not part of an organized gang. Others said they didn’t even know how many people were in the back of the truck.
The group is mainly made up of Bulgarians, but one ringleader was 31-year-old Samsoor Lahoo, who himself had previously fled Afghanistan. In his last statement to the court, Lahoo said he “had not wanted anyone's death.”
However, transcripts of phone calls Lahoo made undermined such a claim. “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.”
During the trial, Lahoo labeled his words “thoughtless remarks.”
State prosecutor Gabor Schmidt described Lahoo’s actions as a display of “endless greed” and “frightening indifference” to migrants desperate to get to Europe.
Investigators said the Budapest-based gang was a professional organization with 15 trucks used to ferry over 1,100 migrants from Hungary into Austria since February 2015, charging up to $1,750 per head.
Cover image: Defendants charged with involvement in the human smuggling case known as the Parndorf-case listen to the verdict at Kecskemet Court of Justice in Kecskemet, 85 kms southeast of Budapest, Hungary, Thursday, June 14, 2018. The Hungarian court has sentenced four human traffickers to 25 years in prison each for their roles in the 2015 case in which 71 migrants suffocated to death in the back of a refrigerated truck found on an Austrian highway. (Sandor Ujvari/MTI via AP)