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Belgian Court Convicts 23 of Running Human Smuggling Ring - 2003-08-12

A court in northwestern Belgium has convicted 23 people, most of them Albanian nationals, of running a multi-million-dollar people smuggling ring and has sentenced them to as much as eight years in prison.

The court, in the town of Dendermonde, says the gang brought more than 10,000 illegal immigrants, mostly Albanians, into Britain during the past two years.

The defendants transported their victims by truck from the Balkans, through Europe and to the Belgian coast where they were smuggled to Britain. The gang charged as much as $3,400 a person for the trip.

The court handed down sentences ranging from three to eight years in jail. The judge in the case said the group was ruthless and actively recruited illegal immigrants by infiltrating refugee centers. This is the latest in a series of trials concerning human trafficking, as the European Union cracks down on the crime. A Dutch court in June jailed seven members of a Chinese gang for smuggling illegal immigrants into Britain. Four of those suspects were charged in connection with the deaths of 58 illegal Chinese immigrants who suffocated in a truck at a British port in 2000.

In another case, a Belgian court in March sentenced seven people to up to 10 years in jail for running a human-smuggling ring that caused the deaths of eight Turkish illegal immigrants. They were found in a cramped cargo container on a boat.

International law enforcement officials say human trafficking generates as much as $30 billion a year. The European Union estimates that almost 500,000 people are smuggled into the 15-nation bloc annually.