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Inside the trial of man accused of being key figure in Channel ‘migrant smuggling group’

It was a sunny place to discuss dark crimes.

The main court-room in Bruges is a converted chapel and, here, the light streamed through stained-glass windows and the sound echoed off the arched roof, way above us.

And into this room walked Hewa Rahimpur to face allegations that he was the central figure in an organised crime group that had arranged for a long line of migrants to cross the English Channel using inflatable boats.

Rahimpur has been charged along with 20 other men, most of whom were here for the first day of the trial.

Hewa Rahimpur in court in Bruges

Defendants in Bruges on Wednesday morning
Defendants in Bruges on Wednesday morning

They all came in together, shuffling into the room like awkward children on the first day of a new term.

Nobody was quite sure where to sit; some looked towards the far end of the room, hoping to see a friend or relative.

A woman climbed on to one of the rows of chairs, craning to see her husband. Alongside her were three daughters, all dressed in smart summer dresses.

There were waves and smiles – everyone trying to reassure each other.

Rahimpur was one of the last to arrive.

Since being arrested in London last year, he has turned 30 but looked younger from a distance.

Dressed in a black top, jeans and trainers, with curly hair and a light beard, he has a slight figure – short and slender.

Hewa Rahimpur being arrested by NCA officers
Hewa Rahimpur being arrested by NCA officers in London

But as you looked closer, you could see that he looked tired and anxious. If he’s convicted, he could face 13 years in prison.

He has been held in a Belgian jail since the extradition that followed his arrest. And this has been a sprawling investigation, spreading over five countries before ending up with this trial.

Bruges is a city familiar with allegations of people smuggling – the court here serves the port of Zeebrugge – but the West Flanders prosecutor’s office described this as its “biggest ever people smuggling investigation”.

Other defendants are now out on bail, and, first thing in the morning, we met a group of them sitting on a bench, waiting for the court to open.

We called out their names, and they raised their hands with schoolboy grins, as if answering a register. Their conversation was lively, like a group of friends.

They had all been named in the investigation but in different roles, in different places.

Police in Germany found a stash of lifeboats and life jackets during a raid in Osnabruck.
Officers also found a stash of lifeboats during the raid

Hewa Rahimpur in court in Bruges, where he faces allegations that he was the central figure in an organised crime group that had arranged for a long line of migrants to cross the English Channel using inflatable boats.
Hewa Rahimpur in court in Bruges

The impression was of strangers who had become friends, with a common experience. Many of the people around us had already spent months in Belgian prisons.

Reband Othman speaks up. He is a confident 23-year-old in a baggy T-shirt with “Los Angeles 92” written across the back.

He arrived in Germany seven years ago, when he was 15, and made a life in the country.

Eventually, he tells us, he arranged to store some equipment at the house of another defendant, German national Dirk Piepmeyer.

He was arrested when outboard motors, used for migrant crossings, were found in Britain and Belgium, and the serial numbers tracked down.

Both had been bought on eBay, in Othman’s name. He now faces seven years in prison.

One man, Mahmoud Abdullah, insisted that he was a taxi driver who was paid to deliver an outboard motor to Calais and didn’t realise that he was doing anything wrong.

Another, Bahzad Habib, said he had been arrested after his cousin asked to borrow his van to drive a dinghy to Calais.

Karzan Sorachi was adamant that he had driven for just a kilometre with a dinghy in the back of his vehicle.

He told us he’d been in Germany for 30 years with no criminal record. “My sister is in the German police,” he said.

When we ask them about Hewa Rahimpur, they knew the man but not the name.

Rahimpur, they tell us, was an alias – that they knew him as Hama Khoshnaw, and believed he was from Kurdistan, not, as the man known as Rahimpur claims, Iran.

To which the prosecutors here in Bruges tend to reply with a wry smile.

“You don’t end up in a court like this just because you borrowed someone’s car,” said Luc Arnou, the lawyer whose role is to represent “the victims”.

He described people smuggling as a “booming business” where migrants would be charged around £2,000 each.

The court heard text messages between Rahimpur and people who had entrusted themselves to one of the boats that, the prosecution alleges, he supplied for Channel crossings.

A passenger writes that “the boat is bad” but Rahimpur tells them to go anyway because “it is not important that it takes another six hours, just get to the other side”.

The passenger replies saying the engine keeps breaking down and that he’s scared.

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Channel people-smuggling suspect goes on trial

“Inshallah you will get there,” says Rahimpur. The reply comes, saying the passengers have called the French coastguard for help.

“Don’t,” says Rahimpur. “Just get to the other side.”

The three judges were shown videos from Rahimpur’s phone, showing families waiting at migrant camps in northern France, a delivery of dinghies from Turkey and piles of cash.

Rahimpur accepts playing a role in people-smuggling, but insists he was responsible only for processing payments. He denies being the leader of the gang.


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