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Human Traffickers On Trial

At first, the freight supervisor thought the floor of a shipping container in the back of a tomato truck was covered with wooden pallets. Then he realized the horrifying truth: he was looking at a tangle of corpses.

In one of two trials involving the deaths of illegal immigrants smuggled into England, a British court on Monday heard testimony from customs and harbor officials from the port of Dover, who described the discovery of the bodies of 58 Chinese immigrants. They slowly suffocated during their five-hour ferry voyage from Belgium. Only two survived.

The truck's Dutch driver, 32-year-old Perry Wacker, is charged with 58 counts of manslaughter and four of conspiracy in a trial that is casting light on the fast-growing criminal enterprise of trafficking in human beings. The dead Chinese -- 54 men and four women -- had paid tens of thousands of dollars each to smuggling gangs known as "snakeheads" for the chance to begin a new life in the West.

On trial in Maidstone Crown Court along with Wacker is Ying Guo, 29, an interpreter who prosecutors say was to have been the contact in Britain for the smuggled immigrants once they arrived. She is charged with conspiracy and, like Wacker, has pleaded innocent.

Court proceedings were to continue Tuesday.

In Rotterdam, Holland, a separate but related case began Monday.

The prosecution in that case against nine men -- six Dutch and three Turks -- is expected to highlight the growing traffic in humans. Hundreds of thousands of people are smuggled from developing countries every year to Europe, where they seek better lives.

In opening remarks, the Dutch prosecution said it would trace the gang's activities back to December 1999 when it smuggled another group of immigrants from the Netherlands to Belgium and across the English Channel to Britain.

An X-Ray image of the truck   (AP)
showing the bodies.
The gang repeated the operation in April 2000 and again three months later when the Chinese immigrants died in the back of a refrigeration truck on a ferry bound for Dover, England. Altogether, at least 130 migrants were involved, said the prosecution.

Eight of the defendants in Rotterdam have been charged with manslaughter or assisting manslaughter, a spokeswoman for the Dutch prosecutors' office said. Some face additional charges of human trafficking, forgery and membership of a criminal organization. If found guilty, they could face up to 30 years in prison.

One of the defendants cited in the indictment was in Suriname, the former Dutch colony in South America, and prosecutors said they must reissue an outdated arrest warrant against him.

On Monday, the British trial's fourth day, two Dover port workers recounted being called on the night of June 18 to help unload boxs of tomatoes from the back of Wacker's truck. At first, they said, neither of them realized anything was wrong.

"I thought the floor was covered in fallen pallets," said freight supervisor Darren Bailey. "After taking a proper look, I realized it was covered with bodies."

During the crossing, as the air ran out and the temperatures rose, the immigrants stripped to their underwear, sucked the juice from tomatoes to try to quench their thirst, and tried in vain to pry open the air vent, prosecutors have said.

Why Does People
Smuggling Happen?

In its 2001 world report, Human Rights Watch says the nations that formalized protection for refugees appear "to be abandoning this principle, and the future of the international refugee regime was under serious threat."

Click here for more on the organization's report on the eroding rights of asylum seekers.

"There were tomatoes scattered all over the floor and there was a commotion," he added. "I immediately saw one male half-buried under tomatoes at the rear of the lorry ... I could see a person, which I believe was a teen-age girl -- she was lying still with her mouth open and eyes closed."

He and another port worker, Barry Betts, both described intense heat inside the container. Last week, as the trial opened, prosecutors told the court that during the hot summer night's crossing, Wacker closed the container's only air vent to muffle any noise, then went to the ferry's upper decks to eat and watch movies.

"I can remember it was very hot, when refrigerated containers carrying fruit are normally cold," said Betts. "I shouted to my colleagues to get ambulances."

"I can remember a paramedic checking the first body in the container for a pulse and saying he was dead," he said.

Customs officers testified that the truck was stopped for a search because it fitted a profile of vehicles used for smuggling -- one that had not traveled through Dover before, and whose operator had paid for the passage in cash.

Before the truck was opened, a drug-sniffing dog and handler checked it from the outside. Then a customs officer, David Bell, clambered atop a ladder to look inside, peering over the boxes of tomatoes stacked high in the container. Dog handler Lisa Quigey told the court her shocked colleague shouted to her, "There are illegals!" or "There are people!"

As customs officials realized that the immigrants packed into the container were either dead or unconscious, Wacker stood by, looking emotionless, immigration officer Kate Pring testified.

"He was calm -- he was not hysterical," she said. "He was standing watching us."

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