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Last Updated: Friday, 28 May, 2004, 16:58 GMT 17:58 UK
Trailing the 'club class' people smugglers
By Finlo Rohrer
BBC News Online

Shakean Chahal
Shakean Chahal is thought to have been the ringleader
Shakean Singh Chahal was the key man in a people-smuggling operation that offered a "club class" service to would-be immigrants at 8,000 a time.

In the two years British police tried to follow their operation, the Midlands-based gang is thought to have trafficked as many as 400 people across the Channel.

Most of the immigrants had travelled from the Punjab region of India, travelling legitimately to France by a variety of means and meeting at a Sikh temple near Paris, before being dispersed to safe houses around the French capital and smuggled to Britain.

The Indians desperate to flee to the UK were mostly men in their 20s, with their families selling land and businesses to fund the trip. Once in the UK they might be expected to send money back to their families.

But for those being smuggled, paying twice the price some other gangs charged meant avoiding risking their lives by being locked in the back of lorries or crammed into hidden voids.

Instead they were fed and watered on the way, allowed to roam the cross-Channel ferry, transferred to people carriers once in the UK and then driven to the door of the families in the Midlands they planned to stay with.

Clockwise from top left: Paul Slater-Mason, Talbinder Gill, Lee Ludbrook and Kalbinder Singh Gill
All five defendants pleaded guilty to facilitating illegal immigrants at Canterbury Crown Court
The gang first came to the attention of police when they were stopped in Harwich and Portsmouth during 2001. There were no arrests on one occasion and on the other the suspects were released as there was insufficient evidence to charge them.

Officers involved in Operation Gular spoke of how difficult it was to establish the more serious charge of facilitation, with gangs adopting sophisticated tactics.

Chahal's men used surveillance to check for police attention, were told to make themselves known so officials got used to seeing them on crossings, and bought alcohol on the Continent so they could claim to be on a "booze cruise" if stopped.

White drivers Lee Ludbrook, 43, from Moxley, and the recently-recruited Paul Slater-Mason, 38, were used to take the van containing the immigrants on the crossing.

Well connected

The gang was eventually broken up after police from the National Crime Squad and Kent Constabulary swooped on them near Canterbury as they returned from Paris with 14 smuggled immigrants.

Detective Inspector Alan Edwards of the National Crime Squad said the men were "very, very well connected".

"The big thing they offered was this club class-type service. They would be looked after and fed, brought in and be taken to their door."

The immigrants were told if they were caught they should not claim asylum, instead being deported back to France where they would return to the temple and another attempt would be made to bring them to the UK.

The detective added: "It was five-star service. The amount of time spent in a vehicle was cut to the absolute minimum."

The men would be in people carriers during most of the journey, spending only a brief period locked in a van and allowed to roam around the ferry like ordinary holidaymakers during the crossing. They were issued with passports of British Asians, either stolen or sold, in the event of being challenged.

Det Insp Edwards added: "It took a planned operation with about six different agencies to get this far."

The police are now using the Proceeds of Crime act to confiscate the assets and cash earned by Chahal and his gang.

By the time he was finally apprehended Chahal was driving a red Ferrari Modena and had accumulated 200,000 in cash. Brothers Kalbinder Singh Gill, 30, and Talbinder Gill, 29, both of Walsall, had thousands more.

The officers working on the case praised the French law enforcement agencies who helped with surveillance and intelligence, contributing to more successful raids. Co-operation went as high as then-French Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy.

In one related raid in October 2003, a man driving a minibus was arrested and found to have five men hiding in the 18-inch ceiling void. The men were lying on their backs and the panel on the ceiling cavity was screwed shut, meaning the men would be trapped in the event of an accident. The driver was jailed for four years.

Police estimate there may have been three or four other gangs operating in the UK, using the French network surrounding the temple near Paris.

Arrest in people-smuggling raids
07 Oct 03 |  England

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