A trial in Hungary will decide the fate of human smugglers who ignored the cries of 71 migrants as they died in the back of a truck that was then dumped on the side of an Austrian highway.
Four men are charged with human smuggling and murder. Seven others are also charged with the smuggling of hundreds of people across Europe.
The bodies of the 59 men, eight women and four children, from Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan, were found inside the abandoned truck on Aug. 26, 2015.
At their murder trial on Wednesday, June 21, the prosecution described the shocking crime, which took place at the height of Europe’s migrant crisis in 2015.
“The limited space of the transport, the inability to move, the lack of air, and the rise of the temperature … all caused serious physical torture shortly after the departure,” said Hungarian prosecutor Gabor Schmidt.
Schmidt said that as the migrant crisis peaked in 2015, the defendants stepped up their operation to maximize profits, purchasing bigger and bigger vans to go from Hungary to Austria, increasing from moving 20 migrants a day to 100 under conditions that amounted to torture.
A bearded Afghan man, Lahoo Samsooryamal, is described as leader of the smuggling gang, with three Bulgarians as his accomplices. The four were led into the Hungarian courtroom on the first day of their trial in handcuffs by armed police wearing face masks.
Samsooryamal, the first degree defendant, smiled at the media as he entered and carried a folder bearing the words “Allahu Akbar” (God is Great) and a phrase in Pashto.
Schmidt said the defendants knew the victims, who were locked into the van, were banging and shouting because they had no air to breathe.
“The first degree defendant during his phone calls with the second degree defendant on August 26, 2015 at 6:05 (CET) and 6:09 (CET) repeated his earlier instructions (not to open the van) and in an agitated state made statements such as that he wanted the victims to die.”
The discovery of the truck full of corpses shocked Europe and was the worst incident of its kind on the route across the Balkans that hundreds of thousands of migrants took.
Schmidt said Samsooryamal had promised to pay one of the Bulgarian defendants 3,500 euros (US$3,900) to drive the Volvo freezer truck from the Serbian-Hungarian border to Germany.
The three others in the smuggling gang followed the truck in cars, and were in phone contact during the journey.
The court heard the migrants tried to remove rubber insulation and smash holes in the side of the vehicle and started banging on the sides and shouting 30-40 minutes after departure.
The truck’s driver told Samsooryamal of the cries but was told not to stop or open the doors.
Schmidt said the Afghan had told one of the other defendants by phone, “He wanted the victims to die” and that if they did, the bodies should be dumped later.
The gang did not open the doors even when the truck stopped twice to check the engine’s coolant, water, and refuel.
By one of the stops, the shouting had ceased. The convoy drove across to Austria and abandoned the vehicle near Parndorf.
Of the other seven men, all Bulgarian, charged with smuggling, only six appeared in court in the Hungarian city of Kecskemet. Authorities said one was still on the run.