'If they die drop them in a forest': the ringleader behind the migrant death truck

Philippe SCHWAB
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Afghan Samsoor Lahoo was found guilty of knowingly letting the 71 migrants die a slow and painful death by suffocation in the back of an abandoned truck

At the start of his trial last June, Samsoor Lahoo flashed a boyish smile at the cameras as he entered the packed Hungarian courtroom in handcuffs to face charges over the gruesome deaths of 71 migrants rammed into a truck in 2015.

The Afghan, 31, was accused of running a ruthless trafficking ring, which made a fortune from stripping refugees of their savings and smuggling them toward western Europe with a blatant disregard for human safety or dignity.

Despite 59,000 pages of evidence detailing his gang's activities, Lahoo had held up a sign in the Pashto language reading "I am neither a killer, nor an oppressor" in the court in the town of Kecskemet.

But a year on, he remained stoney-faced as the judge handed him a 25-year jail term on Thursday for knowingly leaving the migrants to die a slow and excruciating death by suffocation in an abandoned refrigerated truck on an Austrian motorway in August 2015.

Fifty-nine men, eight women and four children -- all from Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq -- were locked inside a hermetically sealed poultry lorry near the Serbian-Hungarian border.

Shortly after departure, the migrants banged and shouted that they were running out of air. Lahoo ordered the driver to ignore their screams.

"If they die ... drop them off in a forest in Germany," he was quoted as saying in released transcripts of intercepted mobile phone conversations.

The bodies were discovered in an advanced state of decomposition on August 27, 2015, more than 24 hours after the migrants had been abandoned. Among the sea of limbs was a baby girl, not even a year old.

Lahoo, who rejected the charges against him and 13 other accomplices, remained mostly tight-lipped throughout the trial.

He told the court in a final statement that he "had not wanted anyone's death".

- Strict hierarchy -

Lahoo arrived as an asylum-seeker in Hungary in 2013 and was granted protection status.

Well-versed in English, Arabic, Pashto, Serbian and Hungarian, he allegedly launched his gang in February 2015.

According to prosecutors, business started to pick up after a Tunisian approached Lahoo about organising "regular transports" of migrants between Hungary and Germany.

Amid escalating violence in the Middle East, hundreds of thousands of people landed on European shores in the summer of 2015 -- welcome fodder for human traffickers.

From June that year, Lahoo's gang began ferrying migrants from Serbia to Austria or Germany on a daily basis, "often in closed, dark and airless vans unsuitable for passenger transport, in crowded, inhuman, excruciating conditions," according to the charge sheet.

The operation soon flourished expanding to use dozens of vehicles, employ accomplices in key transit countries on the Balkan migrant trail and develop meticulous logistics.

The well-oiled network is thought to have transported more than 1,100 people at the height of Europe's migration crisis in 2015.

Lahoo pocketed between 1,000 euros ($1,100) and 1,500 euros per person, netting "at least 300,000 euros", according to the charge sheet.

As business boomed, he set up a strict hierarchy with designated people in charge of finance, transport and the acquisition of vehicles with valid papers.

At the bottom of the ladder were the mostly Bulgarian drivers who received between 500 euros and 2,000 euros per trip and ran the biggest risk of getting caught.

Several drivers were arrested by German police near the Austrian border in 2015.

Unconcerned, Lahoo decided to use refrigerated trucks -- considered less obvious than vans -- to move increasingly large numbers of people in ever-worsening conditions.

Up to 81 migrants were squashed into spaces measuring barely 17 square metres (180 square feet) according to investigators.

A day after the death truck discovery, the gang is said to have loaded another 67 migrants into a refrigerated lorry and again driven to Austria.

"This time the migrants managed to kick the door open, thus no one had died," according to prosecutors.