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Man alleged to be 'the ringleader' and 'chief organiser' of organised criminal group refused bail by High Court

Mr Justice Paul Burns said there was a “serious risk” the defendant might abscond.

Image: Sasko Lazarov/Photocall Ireland

A MONAGHAN HAULIER alleged to be “the ringleader” and “chief organiser” of an organised criminal group who trafficked 39 migrants found dead in a lorry container in Essex last year has been refused bail by the High Court pending an extradition hearing.

The court was told at yesterday’s bail hearing that Ronan Hughes is alleged to have “organised, paid for the travel and controlled the drivers who collected the migrants”.

Gardaí gave evidence that Mr Hughes has “huge connections” and familiarity with various ports throughout Europe and had the “wherewithal to flee the jurisdiction at the appropriate time”.

Evidence was also given at the hearing that €200,000 had been frozen in 33 bank accounts linked to Mr Hughes and his family and that the accused had last year bought a 2019 BMW X5, valued at €108,000, which has since been seized by the Criminal Assets Bureau (CAB).

Mr Hughes (40), of Leitrim, Silverstream, Tyholland, Monaghan is wanted by UK authorities to face 39 counts of manslaughter and one count of conspiracy to assist unlawful immigration.

Returning judgment today, Mr Justice Paul Burns said that the prosecution had met the burden of proof and Mr Hughes was a probable flight risk if bail was granted.

“There is a very serious risk of him absconding,” he said.

The High Court judge said unfortunately there were no conditions that could allay the court’s concerns.

Mr Justice Burns said the evidence that Mr Hughes gave yesterday was unconvincing and lacking in credibility.

“Even if he had not given evidence I would have refused bail in this matter,” he said.

Mr Justice Burns remanded Mr Hughes in custody to May 15, when the full hearing of his extradition to the UK will take place.

The haulier was joined by video-link from Cloverhill Prison today and wore a face mask for the short hearing. He is the second man from Northern Ireland to be arrested here on a European Arrest Warrant (EAW) as part of the Essex police investigation.

Mr Hughes, who owns a haulage firm, was arrested on the evening of April 20 at his home in Co Monaghan following the endorsement of a EAW issued by the police in Essex.

Mr Hughes and his younger brother Christopher (34) have been wanted in connection with the deaths since the beginning of the investigation, with Essex Police making an extraordinary live appeal last November for the siblings to hand themselves in. Their trucking firm is based in Tyholland, about 7km from the Armagh border.

The eight women and 31 men had arrived in England last October on a ferry from Zeebrugge in Belgium. The youngest of the victims were two boys aged 15.

At yesterday’s bail hearing, Detective Sergeant Jim Kirwan of the Garda Extradition Unit told counsel for the State Ronan Kennedy SC that gardai were strongly objecting to bail due to the seriousness of the charges and there were no conditions upon which bail could be granted that would allay concerns.

Reading from the warrant, Detective Sergeant Kirwan said it is alleged that Mr Hughes had unlawfully killed 39 Vietnamese nationals who were found dead in the back of trailer in UK between October 22 and 24, 2019. It is alleged the migrants had been brought into the UK illegally by Mr Hughes and his co-conspirators.

Mr Hughes, it is alleged, had also conspired with others to facilitate the illegal entry of people including the 39 deceased persons into the UK between May 1, 2018 and October 24, 2019. Migrants were allegedly smuggled into the UK from Belgium in commercial trailers owned or operated by Mr Hughes, said Detective Sergeant Kirwan. He said it was alleged that “Mr Hughes organised, paid for the travel and controlled the drivers who collected the migrants”.

Continuing to read from the warrant, Detective SergeantKirwan said: “On October 15 2019 [Ronan] Hughes arranged for his driver Maurice Robinson to deliver trailer number GTR128D to Mr Eamon Harrison in France. On October 16, 2019 Hughes travelled to Essex.

The witness said that it was alleged that Mr Hughes had falsely declared that the trailer was carrying a load of biscuits. Mr Hughes had “a serious case to answer” in the UK and it was also alleged that he was the “chief organiser” of the organised criminal group involved in bringing illegal migrants into the UK. Essex police said this group was organised for the purposes of financial gain, he explained, adding that “very large sums” of money were involved in the business.

Detective Sergeant Kirwan said Mr Hughes faced a life sentence in prison if convicted of the offences and he had the means and ability to flee at the appropriate time. He had been identified by Essex police as the organiser and there was extensive phone and CCTV evidence, he indicated.

He said Mr Hughes has previous convictions in this jurisdiction and the UK for road traffic offences and smuggling convictions. Mr Hughes was sentenced to 30 months in prison for evading nearly one million pounds in excise duty for smuggling five million cigarettes into the UK in 2009, he said. He described Mr Hughes as the alleged “ringleader”, who had allegedly made a substantial amount of money from this illegal activity.

Detective Sergeant Kirwan pointed out that €200,000 had been frozen in 33 bank accounts linked to the respondent and his family. He owns a time-share in a villa in Florida and has an address in Armagh, the court heard.

Detective Sergeant Kirwan said Mr Hughes has “huge connections” throughout Europe, has many trailer units registered to him and his haulage business is registered in Bulgaria. “Given the nature of his work, he has great familiarity with various ports throughout Europe and how to exit and enter them and he has the wherewithal to flee the jurisdiction at the appropriate time,” he indicated.

The court also heard that he bought a 2019 BMW X5 valued at €108,000 last year, which is now in possession of the Criminal Assets Bureau (CAB).

Detective Sergeant Kirwan indicated that not all vehicles associated with Mr Hughes had been located by CAB and it was believed that vehicles of value were removed from his yard at Tyholland on October 24, 2019, when the bodies of the migrants were discovered.

Furthermore, Detective Sergeant Kirwan said Mr Hughes had the ability to abscond and it was the belief that should the High Court grant bail and then order his surrender, he would not present himself to be handed over to the UK authorities.

Charges

Last week, Detective Sergeant Jim Kirwan told Mr Kennedy that he arrested Mr Hughes as part of a planned operation at 5.15pm on April 20 at his home in Leitrim, Silverstream, Tyholland, Co Monaghan on foot of the warrant and cautioned him.

Eamon Ronald Harrison (22), of Mayobridge, Co Down has already appeared in court here and has been granted leave to appeal his pending extradition to the UK in May under the terms of the EAW. He is wanted to face 39 counts of manslaughter and conspiracy to assist unlawful immigration.

Last Friday, the Court of Appeal was told by Mr Kennedy that a charge of conspiracy to commit human trafficking under the UK’s Modern Slavery Act had been withdrawn by UK authorities against Mr Harrison. The court heard that this would shorten the appeal hearing on May 7.

It is alleged that Mr Harrison delivered the trailer, in which the bodies of eight females and 31 males were found in an industrial park in Grays, Esssex on October 23 last, to a Belgian port before its onward journey to Britain. The cargo was recorded as “biscuits” and the migrants died from a lack of oxygen between 8pm and 10pm after they had entered UK territorial waters.

Earlier this month Maurice Robinson (25), of Craigavon, Co Armagh, admitted 39 counts of manslaughter at the Old Bailey. He had previously pleaded guilty to conspiracy to assist unlawful immigration and acquiring criminal property. He denied a further charge of transferring criminal property. He will be sentenced at a later date.

The High Court in Dublin has heard that the sealed refrigeration unit was not turned on and that the people inside died from oxygen starvation. Temperatures inside the unit rose to 38.5 degrees before it “steadily reduced”, and police discovered “bloody hand prints” inside.

About the author:

Alison O'Riordan

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