Bodies of victims found in refrigerated truck in UK arrive in Vietnam

MichaelPenhallow/iStock(LONDON) — The bodies of some of the 39 Vietnamese nationals found dead in a tractor-trailer near London last month have been returned to their homeland.

“Today, the first victims have been repatriated by plane from London and are now en route to their home provinces,” British ambassador to Vietnam Gareth Ward said in a video message posted online Wednesday. “I hope that this can bring some small comfort to their families and loved ones.”

Ward noted that he has been “keeping in close touch” with the Vietnamese ambassador to the United Kingdom “to ensure the victims of the tragedy in Essex can be reunited with their families in Vietnam.”

“This is a very difficult time but I promise the families and Vietnamese people as a whole that we will continue to boost the cooperation between the U.K. and Vietnam to prevent human trafficking and protect vulnerable people here,” he added. “Human trafficking is an international problem that requires us to work together to solve it. We will continue working with the Vietnamese authorities to investigate the criminal acts that led to this tragedy. In the coming time, I plan to visit the affected communities to express my condolences and reinforce the British government’s commitment to preventing anything like this from happening again.”

On Oct. 23, the bodies of eight women and 31 men were found in a refrigerated lorry container at an industrial park in the town of Grays in Essex, southeast England, about 20 miles east of London. Investigators determined that the truck had traveled into the United Kingdom from Belgium, according to Essex police.

Initially thought to be Chinese, investigators later identified all 39 victims as Vietnamese and released their names on Nov. 8. The victims ranged in age from 15 to 44, according to Essex police.

Essex police had said it was “the largest mass fatality victim identification process” in the history of the force. The cause of their deaths has yet to be determined.

Essex police spokesperson Lorna Mackinnon confirmed to ABC News that “the process to reunite the victims with their loved ones has begun.”

“The repatriation back to Vietnam is being managed by the Vietnamese and we are assisting in this process where we can,” Mackinnon said in an email Wednesday. “The wishes of the families is of paramount importance to Essex Police as we have demonstrated from the outset of our investigation into the 39 needless deaths.”

The driver of the vehicle, 25-year-old Maurice Robinson of Northern Ireland, was arrested and ultimately charged with 39 counts of manslaughter as well as one count each of conspiracy to traffic people, conspiracy to assist unlawful immigration, acquiring criminal property and transferring criminal property. He pleaded guilty to conspiracy to assist unlawful immigration and acquiring criminal property on Monday, appearing via video link for a pretrial hearing at the Central Criminal Court of England and Wales in London, according to Essex police.

Robinson did not have to answer any plea regarding the other charges, which will be dealt with at a later hearing on Dec. 13, the court confirmed to ABC News.

Another man from Northern Ireland, 23-year-old Christopher Kennedy, has been charged with conspiracy to arrange or facilitate the travel of people with a view to exploitation and conspiracy to facilitate the commission of a break of U.K. immigration law. He appeared on Monday morning in the magistrates’ court in Chelmsford, about 40 miles northeast of London although no pleas were entered and his case was adjourned. Kennedy is due to appear at the Central Criminal Court of England and Wales in London on Dec. 13, according to Essex police.

Meanwhile, authorities in the United Kingdom have asked for the public’s help in locating two brothers from Northern Ireland — 40-year-old Ronan Hughes and 34-year-old Christopher Hughes — who are both wanted on suspicion of manslaughter and human trafficking in connection with the case in Essex.

Essex police are also seeking the extradition of another Northern Irish man, who appeared in court in Dublin earlier this month and was remanded in custody. Eamonn Harrison, 22, has been charged with 39 counts of manslaughter, as well as human trafficking and immigration offences in connection with the case in Essex. The extradition proceedings to bring Harrison to England are pending, and he is expected to next appear in court in December.

Three other suspects — two men and a woman — were arrested in late October and questioned on suspicion of manslaughter and conspiracy to traffic people, but they have not been charged and were released on bail, according to Essex police.

A number of additional suspects have been reportedly arrested in Vietnam in connection with the case.

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