0523 GMT March 18, 2019
Seven men, including Kent-based trafficking criminals and their Albanian ‘travel agents’, were said to have ‘scant regard’ for safety during a string of bungled operations, independent.ie reported.
At least 18 Albanian migrants were transported from near Calais to Dymchurch in Kent in 2016, using dangerously overcrowded inflatable boats designed for six.
When the rigid-hulled inflatable boats (RHIBs) got into trouble, ran out of fuel and had to be rescued, the plotters bought a three-person jet ski for their next mission.
A National Crime Agency-led surveillance operation put a stop to the unlikely plan, which would have taken migrants across the world's busiest shipping route.
The men were arrested and convicted of conspiracy to breach immigration law.
On Friday, Judge Mark Dennis QC sentenced father and son Leonard Powell and George Powell as the ‘organizers and controlling figures’ of the conspiracy.
Leonard Powell, 66, from Dartford, was found guilty after trial in August, while son George Powell, 42, from Farningham in Kent, pleaded guilty to the same offence in May.
They were sentenced to nine years imprisonment and six years and nine months imprisonment respectively during a hearing at the Old Bailey.
Powell's other son Alfie, 39, of no fixed address, was said to have held a non-organizational role and received a six-year jail sentence.
They were joined in the dock by Sabah Dulaj, 24, of south-east London and Artur Nutaj, 39 — said to be ‘leading figures’ in the plot, who provided the link between the smugglers and migrants in Europe.
Dulaj, who was of previous good character, received seven years in prison while Nutaj received a sentence of seven-and-a-half years.
Coconspirators Wayne Bath, 39, of Sheerness, Kent, and Albert Letchford, 42, of Dartford, received six years for their roles in the plot.
The judge said, "The execution of the smuggling operation at times proved to be alarmingly amateur and could have resulted in tragic consequences at sea."
The seven defendants were sentenced in front of a packed public gallery of family and friends, who waved goodbye and yelled ‘love you’ as the men were led from the dock.
The court heard that migrants, including men, women and children, were charged up to £5,500 each to journey across the English Channel.
This would have amounted to £99,000 for the trip with 18 passengers.
"Clearly, a very lucrative trade," Prosecutor Timothy Probert-Wood QC said on Friday.
All defendants except Dulag had previous convictions, the court was told.
The criminals had little boating experience or knowledge of the danger to which they were exposing passengers.
They are believed to have carried out one successful trip in an RHIB called Rebel, which was found abandoned by border officials in Kent.
On May 26 2016, French police spotted a group of people signaling a boat in the water off Cran d'Escalles beach near Calais.
Gathered migrants began to wade out to meet it but the Antares RHIB left after a parked car signaled using its headlights.
Probert-Wood told jurors during the trial that the group were "clearly not there for a day on the beach".
Two days later, the gang attempted again to reach French shores with the newly acquired White Scanner RHIB, under the watch of NCA agents.
The White Scanner picked up 18 migrants from France — including two children aged 16 and 17 and a woman.
On the return journey, they ran out of fuel and the passengers were forced to start baling out as the vessel flooded with sea water.
The group were in ‘extreme fear for their lives’, the prosecutor said on Friday, with one sending a desperate text message reading: "We are in England, tell police, we are drowning."
The Coastguard helicopter and RNLI launched a rescue operation and found the inflatable vessel.
The judge said, "Scant regard was had for the safety of the migrants being transported by boat, there were no life jackets provided for the 18 migrants.
"The migrants on the Scanner were left stranded in the dark in a heavy swell, many fearing they were going to drown."
In July 2016, the White Scanner two-man crew of Mark Stribling, 35, from Farningham, Kent, and Robert Stilwell, 33, from Dartford, Kent, were jailed.
Undeterred by the failed Scanner operation, the gang bought another larger boat from Southampton in 2016 — referred to as The Boat With No Name.
NCA operatives planted a bug on the boat to listen in as the gang plotted their next migrant run.
On August 13, the NCA secretly filmed a meeting of the Kent gang and their Albanian partners in a pub car park.
They went together to buy a £1,900 jet ski with a view to using it to transport migrants from France to Britain.
The NCA moved in to arrest them over safety fears if the jet ski was brought into use.
"A clear inference from the purchase of the jet-bike was that that was also to be used for the purposes of trafficking — clearly something that would have been a grave risk for everyone," the prosecutor said on Friday.
Brendan Foreman, of the NCA, said, "What this group were attempting was reckless and willfully negligent of the risks associated with crossing one of the world's busiest shipping lanes.
"But, as the events of 28 May 2016 clearly demonstrated, they were quite happy to risk lives for the sake of profit, using vessels that were not fit for purpose.
"The severity of what these men were involved in is reflected in the sentences handed down today."
Emma Moore, the chief operating officer of Border Force, hailed her officers' role in rescuing those on board.
She said, "On 28 May, in dreadful sea conditions, Border Force officers launched their RHIB from the relative safety of the Border Force Cutter 'Valiant' multiple times to rescue all of those who were on board the smugglers' boat.
"If it had not been for that bravery and exceptional seamanship I am convinced there would have been fatalities."