On Thursday, 20 months after the police unlocked the truck found on the shoulder of the Budapest-Vienna highway, the first formal charges against the suspected perpetrators were brought.
The Afghan defendant, identified only as L. and said to be 30 years old, was described as the ringleader. Operating a people smuggling ring from February to August 2015, he earned 300,000 euros, the prosecutors said in a statement summarizing their indictment.
His two chief accomplices were identified by prosecutors as M., a 31-year-old Bulgarian who led a team of Bulgarian drivers, and K., a 51-year-old dual citizen of Bulgaria and Lebanon, who obtained vehicles and registration plates.
The statement included details on how the refugees — 59 men, eight women and four children from Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan and Iran — had died. One person, according to Hungarian police last October, is yet to be identified.
On the morning of Aug. 26, 2015, the statement said, “members of the criminal organization” locked the refugees into a truck near Morahalom, a town close to Hungary’s border with Serbia, and a way station along the Balkan route that so many migrants followed that summer.
“Approximately half an hour after the departure, the migrants indicated with bangs and cries that they were running out of oxygen,” the statement said. “The signals were heard by the driver,” a 25-year-old Bulgarian identified only as l. and a “forerunner,” said to be a 38-year-old Bulgarian identified only as T., who apparently accompanied the truck in a separate vehicle.
“Through their Bulgarian boss, they reported the problem to the Afghan head of the criminal organization who ordered them several times not to open the door,” the statement added, “to ignore the people suffocating there and to reach western Europe as soon as possible.”
“Even though they could have helped the victims, the driver and the forerunner complied with the instruction of their boss and the Afghan leader,” the statement said. The 71 victims, it said, “suffocated in horrendous conditions three hours from departure.”
They died while the truck had still been in Hungary, it added.
The two Bulgarians crossed into Austria and parked the truck on the side of the highway close to an outlet shopping mall in Parndorf, southeast of Vienna. They then returned to Hungary “using the forerunner vehicle,” the statement said.
Austrian police noticed and opened the truck the following day.
Even as Europeans reeled in shock from the discovery, the smuggling of refugees went on uninterrupted. “In order to make more money, the following morning the members of the criminal organization loaded 67 migrants in to an unventilated, closed refrigerator lorry near Morahalom,” the prosecutors said.
“The defendants turned a blind eye to the fact that because of the inhuman conditions, migrants had got into life-threatening medical conditions, and transported them to the town of Gols, Austria. This time, the migrants could kick the door of the load area open, thus no one died.”
The statement said nine of the suspects were in custody in the town of Kecskemet, southeast of Budapest on the main route to the Serbian border. The two others should be tried in absentia, it added.
All 11 suspects are charged with human smuggling as part of a criminally organized group, and with “the torture of the smuggled persons,” the statement said. The four defendants most directly involved in the deaths face charges of homicide committed with particular cruelty, against more than one person, including people under the age of 14. Under Hungarian law they face life imprisonment if convicted.
The Bulgarian identified as M., and another unidentified Bulgarian, are charged with 67 counts of life-threatening battery in connection with the second truck from which the migrants escaped.
The Hungarian news agency MTI said the trial would start in June, and would last at least into the fall. It reported that 284 witnesses were expected, but gave no details on nationality.