By Krisztina Than
KECSKEMET, Hungary (Reuters) - Four people smugglers were jailed for 25 years on Thursday for the deaths of 71 men, women and children whose decomposing bodies were found crammed inside a truck dumped on an Austrian motorway three years ago.
Trial judge Janos Jadi said the four, an Afghan and three Bulgarians, were guilty of "extreme cruelty" for refusing to stop the refrigeration truck and open the doors to allow in air.
"The people inside realised that they may suffocate to death, so they banged the doors, screamed and shouted trying to signal to the driver," Jadi told a packed court in the Hungarian town of Kecskemet, where the truck was hired.
The August 2015 deaths of 59 men, eight women and four children from Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan shocked Europe as it struggled to cope with a massive influx of migrants.
The incident was the worst of its kind on the route across the Balkans taken by hundreds of thousands fleeing war and poverty in the Middle East, Africa and Asia.
Sentencing the four for homicide and people smuggling, Jadi said Afghan Lahoo Samsooryamal - described by prosecutors as the ringleader - had ordered the driver not to open the doors of the Volvo freezer truck as it headed from the Serbian-Hungarian border towards Germany.
He was in contact with Bulgarians Metodi Georgiev, Vencislav Todorov and Ivaylo Stoyanov, by phone during the journey. One of the Bulgarians drove the truck, the others followed it in cars.
The temperature rose quickly soon after their departure and the air began to run out, Jadi said, but the driver could have stopped on the motorway to let air in, "anytime and anywhere".
All the victims had suffocated within a couple of hours after departure, Jadi said. "None of the accused did anything, they stayed passive," he said. "This shows extreme cruelty."
Gabor Schmidt, the prosecutor in charge of the case, appealed against the jail terms, asking instead that the four be given life sentences. "The prosecution believes this is the only punishment that is appropriate," he told the court.
Lawyers for the four men told the court they would also appeal, seeking their acquittal on the homicide charges and lighter sentences for their convictions for people smuggling.
100 PEOPLE A DAY
In a statement posted on the court's website on June 12 the court said the four men regretted what had happened and said they had not wanted the victims to die.
However, Samsooryamal, dressed in a short-sleeved shirt, smiled at reporters as he was led away from the courtroom.
Schmidt said last July that as Europe's migrant crisis peaked in 2015, the defendants had stepped up their operation to maximise profits.
They were taking up to 100 people a day from Hungary to Austria or Germany, mostly along the M1 motorway connecting Budapest with Vienna.
Before the August deaths the group had carried many migrants in similar conditions, causing significant physical and mental suffering, he said.
Other members of the gang have been convicted by the same court for smuggling people across the Hungarian border and several have been handed shorter prison sentences.
(This version of the story corrects paragraph seven to clarify who drove the truck.)
(Reporting by Krisztina Than, editing by Larry King, Jon Boyle and David Stamp)