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Thursday, 5 April, 2001, 12:07 GMT 13:07 UK
Horrific plight of trapped immigrants
Police work near where the bodies of 58 Chinese immigrants were found
Port officials at Dover found 58 bodies in the lorry
By the BBC's Andy Tighe

The voice from behind the cheap patterned curtain sounded frightened and distressed.

It was the voice of a young man, Ke Su Di, one of only two survivors on the ill-fated journey.

The makeshift screen around the witness box was to protect the 20-year-old man from reprisals.

Through a translator he spoke in short, hesitant sentences about the final hours of the 58 people who died, crammed into a sealed container on which the vital, life-supporting air vent had been closed.


You did not have the slightest heed for their welfare. Your conduct was quite criminal

Victor Temple QC for the prosecution
"Did there come a time when those in the container started to become distressed?" asked a lawyer, gently but firmly.

"Yes," said Ke Su Di, softly.

"Did all of you bang on the side of the container and shout for help?"

"Yes," he replied and then, through the court's crude amplification system came the unmistakable sound of sobbing as the unseen witness broke down.

The pain of recalling the appalling death of his fellow illegal immigrants was too great.

This was one of the few times during a long and often complex trial that such raw emotion was displayed in open court.

As expert witnesses discussed obscure technical data about such arcane topics as air depletion rates and mobile phone technology, it was sometimes possible to forget what this case was all about.

Fingerprints

His emotion reminded everyone that it was about the slow suffocation of a group of poor young men and women in the back of a lorry on one of the hottest days of the year.

Perry Wacker, 33, from the Netherlands, drove the vehicle. He was unemployed and needed a steady job.

He claimed he thought he was bringing over a consignment of tomatoes but there was fingerprint and DNA evidence linking him to the warehouse where the Chinese immigrants were held before they were locked into the container.

"You did not have the slightest heed for their welfare," declared Victor Temple, QC for the prosecution.

"Your conduct was quite criminal."

The court was told how Wacker had sat in the bar of the cross-Channel ferry watching films as his human cargo perished on the vehicle decks below.

Duped

When he was stopped by customs officers in Dover, he joked and chatted as his lorry was searched.

Throughout, Wacker denied he had shut the crucial air vent so that any noise from inside would remain undetected.

He tried to present himself as an unsophisticated but well-meaning lorry driver who was duped by a determined band of criminals.

In the witness box he spoke good English and was unerringly polite.

But he lied to the police about his true involvement in the smuggling operation.

Also in the dock was 30-year-old Ying Guo, a translator from China who had been living in England for several years.

Police near where the bodies of 58 Chinese immigrants were found
Lorries are searched daily for stowaways
Smartly dressed and often smiling, she bowed deeply to the judge and again to the jury before she gave evidence.

She denied being a member of a notorious snakehead gang, even though her mobile phone number was found on the bodies of 27 of the dead Chinese.

Even after a six-week trial the verdicts leave a number of worrying questions unanswered.

We know who was responsible for the deaths of the friends of Ke Su Di and we know about the people who plotted to bring them to England.

But how many more similarly desperate Chinese men and women are even now waiting in secret hiding places across Europe to embark on dangerous journeys in the hands of ruthless criminal gangs of people-smugglers?

And will the outcome of this case have any effect at all on such a lucrative and desperate trade?

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See also:

12 Aug 99 | Americas
The deadly trade of human smuggling
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