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Last Updated: Wednesday, 2 July, 2003, 01:21 GMT 02:21 UK
Alleged 'snakehead' boss on trial
Detained illegal immigrants from China
People smuggling is a lucrative business
A Chinese woman has pleaded innocent to criminal charges over the smuggling of thousands of Chinese immigrants, after appearing in a federal court in New York.

Cheng Chui Ping, 53, also known as Sister Ping, was presented in Manhattan federal court after being extradited from Hong Kong.

The charges against Ms Cheng refer to four major shipments of illegal immigrants dating back to 1992, including the 1993 voyage which ended in deaths of 10 people.

While promising passage to their (immigrants') dreams, Sister Ping often only delivered a nightmare and sometimes death
David Kelley, prosecutor

She is also accused of laundering thousands of US dollars from smuggling operations by running a money transmitting business in Manhattan's Chinatown.

The court ordered Ms Cheng to be held without bail. If convicted, she faces a life imprisonment.

'Snakehead' business

Prosecutors allege that Ms Cheng began running smuggling operations in the early 1980s.

They say the Chinese immigrants were brought on ships and usually held hostage until they could pay smuggling fees.

Court papers allege that Ms Cheng charged up to $30,000 per person.

Prosecutor David Kelley said Ms Cheng used members of violent gangs - known as snakeheads - to torture immigrants until they paid smuggling fees.

Ms Cheng is also alleged to have masterminded the shipment of about 300 Chinese immigrants in June 1993 on board the freighter, the Golden Venture, which ran aground off New York.

The prosecutors say 10 people died when they tried to swim ashore.

"It's really a case of an enterprising individual who took advantage of those so desperate to escape the poverty and misery of their homeland," Mr Kelley told a news conference.

"But while promising passage to their dreams, Sister Ping often only delivered a nightmare and sometimes death," he added.

Snakeheads arrange for illegal Chinese immigrants to go to the West but then kidnap them on arrival and demand huge ransom.

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