(Vatican Radio) Hungarian authorities say eleven men have been indicted over the deaths of 71 migrants who suffocated in the back of a refrigerated truck in 2015. The announcement comes at a time when migrants fleeing war and poverty are becoming increasingly desperate searching for ways to enter Western Europe as Hungary has come under international pressure over its tough anti-migration policies.
Listen to the report by Stefan Bos:
The chief prosecutor of Hungary's Bacs-Kiskun County, László Nánási, said the 11 men from Afghanistan, Bulgaria and Lebanon allegedly smuggled some 1,200 people from the Hungary-Serbia border to Austria or Germany in 2015.
That led to a horrific discovery: Migrants from Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan were among the victims found in the back of a refrigerated truck with Hungarian license plates. It was abandoned in the emergency lane of the A4 highway near Parndorf, Austria, not far from the Hungarian border, on August 27, 2015. Those who died included 59 men, eight women and four children.
Investigators say the migrants were locked into the truck the day before near the town of Mórahalom, Hungary, near the Serbian border. They likely died within three hours, while the vehicle was still in Hungary.
Hungarian prosecutor Nánási said in a statement that despite their pleas to open the truck doors, the smugglers were reportedly told by their boss to cross into Austria as soon as possible.
Charges against the defendants include organized human smuggling and the torture of the smuggled persons.
Prosecutors say they are seeking life imprisonment for four defendants and shorter terms at a maximum-security facility and expulsion from Hungary for the rest. The trial will be held at a court in central Hungary where the smugglers began the trip which ended in the migrants' deaths.
Nine of the alleged smugglers are in custody, while prosecutors have filed a motion to try the other two defendants in absentia.
Hungarian prosecutors say the alleged 30-year-old Afghan leader of operation earned some 300,000 euros or $328,000 from the group's smuggling activities in 2015, Nánási said. Among his alleged accomplices are Bulgarian drivers and a Bulgarian-Lebanese man who obtained the vehicles and the temporary license plates.
Just a day after the 71 deaths, the smugglers locked a group of 67 migrants into another closed truck near Mórahalom taking them to the Austrian town of Gols.
While the condition of the migrants became life-threatening, they were able to kick open the doors of the truck and no one died. Two of the defendants are facing charges of life-threatening battery in the case.
Yet the incidents have underscored European Union concerns that migrants and refugees are becoming very desperate searching for ways to enter more welcoming Western European nations. The European Commission, the EU's executive, criticized Hungary's recent introduced decision to detain asylum seekers in container camps, including families and unaccompanied teenagers.
Now György Bakondi, chief security adviser to the prime minister, says the government is ready to adjust some of its controversial policies but only under certain conditions. "We have made a gesture that if it can be worked out we are willing to take a closer look at the possibility that if this 14 to 18-year-old are willing to undergo DNA examination than they can be allowed into the country," he said. But Bakondi warned: "That does not mean they would be able to move around freely. Instead they will be taken from this transit zones to guarded camps."
He admitted that "in the end the negotiations with the [European] Commission's experts were unsuccessful because they think that the physical and legal border closures are unacceptable." Hungary's fiercely anti-migration Prime Minister Viktor Orbán has defended his controversial policies, which also include razor wire border fences, saying the mainly Muslim migrants trying to enter threaten his nation's and Europe's "Christian culture and heritage", while critics have called him a nationalist opportunist.