On June 6, handcuffed and shackled in front of a courtroom in Szeged, Hungary, the defendants began an appeals process in a notorious 2015 refugee smuggling case in which 71 people suffocated in the refrigerator truck they had hoped would carry them to safety in Germany. 

The criminal court of Kecskemet sentenced each of the four main perpetrators to 25 years for manslaughter, smuggling and belonging to a criminal organization.  The men were an Afghani and three Bulgarians, one of whom has Lebanese roots. Based on new evidence, the public prosecutor is now calling for life without parole. The appeal argues extenuating circumstances, an intention to help, not harm, the victims, and no involvement in organized crime.

The asylum seekers, all from Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan – including four children were found in August 2015 on the A4 near Parndorf in Burgenland, Austria.  However, they died in Hungary, assigning  the trial of 14 defendants in all to the southern Hungarian city of Kecskemet. In the trial, the defendants repeatedly complained that they did not understand the interpreter, which has become one basis for their appeal. This time, the process was suspended for 40 minutes to review alleged difficulties in understanding, which a microphone did not seem to improve. Finally, Judge Erik Mezölaki declared the complaints unfounded.

The defendants are alleged to be the head of a gang of smugglers, his deputy, and the drivers of the truck and a support vehicle. Prosecutor Gabor Schmidt had wanted life sentences for the four, rather than the 25 years given. Ten other defendants were given three to twelve years, three tried in absentia.

In 2015, the news of these deaths struck a chord in Austria, Germany and Hungary, eliciting calls to offer secure alternatives . Among the dead were a baby girl and a brother and sister, whose father, Hazim Kuli, an Iraqi Yazidi, had paid smugglers €8,500 so his children could find new life in Germany: “In 2014, ISIS fighters were very close to our village,” Kuli said. “We could hear them and they could see us,” the grieving father told Ö1 reporter Bernt Koschuh at their home in Iraq. Receiving his children back in caskets broke the family. “My mother died shortly after the news, and my wife is a shell of [the person] she used to be, wearing only black.”

A day after the truck’s discovery, another 67 migrants rode in a truck to Austria under similar circumstances. “This time the migrants could kick the door open, so no one died,” prosecutors told the daily Kurier.  

To date, some 59,000 pages of evidence have been collected. stressed the “tragedy” as “a concern to all of us,” Austria’s former interior minister, Johanna Mikl-Leitner said at the time.  “Smugglers are criminals [who]have no interest in the welfare of refugees.”

The defenders requested acquittals or penalty reductions, and the Bulgarians asked to serve the rest of their sentences in their home country. A verdict is expected on June 20th 2019.

UPDATE 20th of June: The verdict fell on life-long imprisonment without parole for three of the defendants. The other received a minimum of 30 years in prison – legally a life term in Hungary – but with the possibility of parole afterwards.

Judge Erik Mezolaki in appeal case: “The suffering in that truck was beyond imagination, as is the utmost indifference the perpetrators showed towards the deaths of these 71 people. Therefore, for those who played a core part, there is no doubt that the only punishment commensurate with their crime is the maximum one.”

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