KECSKEMéT, HUNGARY – The handcuffed Afghan flashed a boyish smile at the cameras as he entered the packed Hungarian courtroom on Wednesday to stand trial over the deaths of 71 migrants found dead in the back of a truck nearly two years ago.
The 30-year-old, identified as Samsoor L., is accused of running a ruthless human trafficking ring, which made its fortune from stripping desperate refugees of their savings and smuggling them toward Western Europe with a blatant disregard for human safety or dignity.
Dozens of vehicles, accomplices in key transit countries on the Balkan migrant trail, meticulous logistics — prosecutors allege that the well-oiled network transported more than 1,100 people at the height of the continent’s migration crisis in 2015.
The suspected mastermind pocketed between €1,000 ($1,100) and €1,500 per person, netting “at least €300,000,” according to the charge sheet.
The gang folded after Austrian police discovered the bodies of 59 men, eight women and four children crammed inside a poultry refrigerator truck near the Hungarian border on Aug. 27, 2015.
Samsoor L. and three accomplices have been charged with murder, while another seven suspects are accused of human trafficking and torture.
Despite 59,000 pages of evidence detailing the gang’s illegal activities, the Afghani suspect held up a sign in Pashto language reading “I am neither a killer, nor an oppressor” at the opening of the trial in the town of Kecskemet.
Samsoor L. 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 first launched his operation in February 2015.
According to prosecutors, business started to properly pick up after a Tunisian approached Samsoor L. about organizing “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 people smuggling gangs.
From June that year, the Afghani suspect’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.
As business flourished, Samsoor L. allegedly set up a strict hierarchy with designated people in charge of finance, transport logistics and the acquisition of vehicles with valid papers.
At the bottom of the ladder were the mostly Bulgarian drivers who received between €500 and €2,000 per trip, and ran the biggest risk of getting caught.
Several such drivers were arrested by German police near the Austrian border in 2015. Two had been transporting 26 and 36 migrants, respectively.
Unconcerned, Samsoor L. decided, according to prosecutors, to use refrigerated trucks — considered less obvious than vans — to pick up increasingly large numbers of people in ever-worsening conditions.
Up to 81 migrants were squashed into spaces measuring barely 17 sq. meters (180 sq. feet) according to investigators.
On that fatal day in August 2015, 71 people — all from Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq — were locked inside a hermetically sealed truck near the Serbian-Hungarian border.
Shortly after the departure, the migrants banged and shouted that they were running out of air but Samsoor L. allegedly ordered the driver to ignore their screams.
“If they die … drop them off in a forest in Germany,” he was quoted as saying in recently released transcripts of intercepted mobile phone conversations.
A day after the death truck discovery, the gang is said to have loaded another 67 migrants into a refrigerated truck and again driven to Austria.
“This time the migrants managed to kick the door open, thus no one had died,” according to prosecutors.