NI drivers ‘necessary cog’ in people smuggling racket

The shipping container in which 35 Afghan Sikhs were found at Tilbury Docks in Essex in August 2014
The shipping container in which 35 Afghan Sikhs were found at Tilbury Docks in Essex in August 2014

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, Co 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.

The trial continues on Wednesday.