Man accused of planning journey that saw toddler and family drown in the Channel in overcrowded boat

EXCLUSIVE: People smuggling ‘kingpin’ goes on trial accused of orchestrating fatal journey which saw toddler and his family drown in the Channel after they were put in overcrowded boat

Three alleged members of a people trafficking gang went on trial yesterday over a clandestine Channel voyage that left seven dead.

The deadly trip from Dunkirk towards England ended in tragedy when a tiny boat laden with up to 25 migrants capsized.

An entire family was killed in the incident – Rasoul Iran-Nejad and his wife Shiva, both 35, drowned alongside their children Anita, nine, Armin, six, and baby boy Artin, 15 months.

Two other migrants also died, with the rest, including three children, miraculously rescued.

Rahimifar (pictured), of Iran’s Kurdish minority, appeared at Dunkirk’s criminal court yesterday

Rahimifar (pictured), of Iran’s Kurdish minority, appeared at Dunkirk’s criminal court yesterday

Baby Artin’s body was not found until months after the October 2020 disaster, on a beach in Norway 600 miles away.

Yesterday alleged gang kingpin Rauf Perot Rahimifar, 38, appeared in an armoured glass dock, at Dunkirk’s criminal court, charged with arranging the fatal trip.

Beside him were his ‘accomplices’ Mostafa Kakelahi and Hoshiar Khezri.

The trio of Iranian kurds are said to have continued arranging repeated small boat trips across the Channel even long months after the seven-death disaster.

Mr Iran-Nejad (left) and his wife, Shiva, (right) with two rescue workers in a French migrant camp. The children are seen from left to right: Artin, Anita and Armin

Mr Iran-Nejad (left) and his wife, Shiva, (right) with two rescue workers in a French migrant camp. The children are seen from left to right: Artin, Anita and Armin 

Baby Artin’s (pictured) body was not found until months after the October 2020 disaster, on a beach in Norway 600 miles away

Baby Artin’s (pictured) body was not found until months after the October 2020 disaster, on a beach in Norway 600 miles away

All three face long sentences over charges that include manslaughter, deliberately endangering life, and running a people-trafficking operation said to have operated from France to England from the start of September 2020 until as late as October the next year.

The family’s perilous route from Iran: Smuggled by boat, truck and two failed crossings from France by train – as two migrants remain missing 

The Iran-Nejad family left West Azerbaijan Province in Iran on August 7 to travel to Turkey and on to Greece, where they were arrested.

They were deported back to Turkey after they were arrested, strip-searched and tear-gassed by Greek police, Iranian Kurds have revealed.

One migrant who travelled with them from Turkey back to mainland Europe claimed that they had ‘lost all their belongings’ and were given money to ‘buy new clothes’ after their deportation from Greece.

The migrant, who asked not to be identified, said he had taken pity on them when he met them in Turkey. ‘They had lost all their belongings,’ he told The Times. ‘I gave them some money to buy new clothes.’

The Iran-Nejads then sailed across the Aegean Sea a second time, but to Italy where they avoided arrest.

From Italy, the family crossed the border from Italy into France in lorries, stopping in several cities along the way, unnamed migrants said.

According to Mr Iran-Nejad’s brother Khalil Irannazhad, the patriarch had initially decided to stay in Germany or Switzerland before changing his mind and carrying on to France.

Family members claim that the Iran-Nejads then stayed on a camp near Calais before moving to Puythouck, but were evicted by police and moved to a nearby hotel after social services found them a room.

Sources told The Times that Mr Iran-Nejad was leant money to pay smuggling gangs to get them into Britain.

The family made three attempts to cross to the UK. The first two times, they wanted to cross by train, and the last time they wanted to cross by boat.

‘It was the third time that they had attempted to cross to the UK. Two times they wanted to cross via train and the last time they wanted to cross by boat,’ said Khalil.

‘We begged him to not try to cross by boat. He insisted on going.’

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A fourth man, Assalan Ghorbani, an Iranian migrant said to have volunteered to pilot the doomed boat in return for a free passage, has also been charged with manslaughter and deliberately endangering life.

He is also accused of people smuggling and joining a criminal conspiracy – but only for the night of the tragedy. The conspiracy charge alone can mean ten years’ jail.

Ghorbani, the only of the four accused not to have been in custody, was not present in court.

Judge Caroline Vilnat was told the people-smuggling gang had run its boats from between Calais and Dunkirk, at Loon Plage.

The craft at the centre of the case was a small fishing boat, complete with a cabin.

But the smugglers put the family of five in the cabin to shelter them from the chill winds, and they were trapped inside as it sank.

The fishing boat, at just 15 feet long, had been grossly overloaded with passengers.

The migrants had been staying at northern France’s latest ‘jungle’, a camp of tents and makeshift shacks in wasteland and undergrowth by a deserted railway line and factory near Dunkirk suburb Grande Synthe.

After 25 or so were selected, they were taken to their boat and set off in rough seas for the Kent coast in the early hours.

But by 9.30am their boat had been capsized by a large wave, throwing many migrants into the sea, while the desperate family struggled to escape their cabin.

The terrified survivors only got back on to French soil thanks to a pleasure cruiser who happened to see them, and call emergency services.

And while the father of the family Rasoul Iran-Nejad did manage to get out of the cabin, he drowned after repeatedly diving down, saturated, fully-clothed and freezing, in a fruitless bid to free and save his wife and three children.

The bodies of the other two victims, believed to have been Youssef Garvis and Sori Shorsh, were never found.

Alleged ringleader Rahimifar, himself an asylum seeker, was arrested in the small town of Viborg, Denmark, in June 2021 – with police saying he was suspected of running hundreds of illegal and dangerous voyages from France to England.

After working temporarily at a McDonald’s under a migration integration scheme in Denmark, he was said to have run a failed grocery shop.

Only then is he said to have turned his hand to making regular, and far more lucrative, trips to the coast between Calais and Dunkirk, delivering boats for migrants, and overseeing launches.

Kakelahi, 42, admitted aiding three voyages at the hearing but claimed he only did so to fund his own ticket to Britain.

Asked why the doomed passengers, who paid around £2,000 each to get to England, were not given promised life jackets, he said: ‘Ask the people smugglers, not me.

Alleged ringleader Rahimifar, himself an asylum seeker, was arrested in Viborg, Denmark, in June 2021 - with police saying he was suspected of running hundreds of illegal and dangerous voyages from France to England

Alleged ringleader Rahimifar, himself an asylum seeker, was arrested in Viborg, Denmark, in June 2021 – with police saying he was suspected of running hundreds of illegal and dangerous voyages from France to England

‘I am not a people trafficker, I only helped out three times because I was told that would get me a free ticket to England.’

Asked if he knew he was sending migrants to their death, he said: ‘I wasn’t aware of the size of the waves or temperature of the sea – it wasn’t my part of the job.

‘And I was not involved after the shipwreck.’

He claimed mobile data was only there to meet friends.’

Kakelahi said he had been at the Grand Synthe camp for a year after fleeing poverty in Iran, claiming he left school illiterate aged nine to start work.

The migrant boat was spotted by Marbuzet, a pleasure boat. This graphic - based data from shipping tracker Marine Traffic - shows the Marbuzet's course on Tuesday morning

The migrant boat was spotted by Marbuzet, a pleasure boat. This graphic – based data from shipping tracker Marine Traffic – shows the Marbuzet’s course on Tuesday morning 

Prosecutors have based their case on substantial mobile phone evidence, with assistance from British law enforcement and the Danish police and courts.

The court was shown autoroute camera images of a Nissan Qashqai – with Danish plates – towing the boat near Loon Plage hours before it sank.

The car, said to be owned by a friend of Rahimifar, was seen again the day after the sinking, heading back to Denmark, without the boat.s

Rahimifar denied the pictures of the car proved anything, saying: ‘there’s no evidence I was in it’.

Police finally arrested Rahimifar fearing he was about to flee back to Iran.

The family had left Iran on August 7 to travel to Turkey, before taking a ferry to Italy and driving to France. Pictured is toddler, Artin

The family had left Iran on August 7 to travel to Turkey, before taking a ferry to Italy and driving to France. Pictured is toddler, Artin

He had already stopped visiting France after an arrest warrant was issued – but is alleged to have continued staging voyages until the moment he was clapped in irons.

Rahimifar said in a Danish court as he unsuccessfully fought extradition to face trial in Dunkirk: ‘I am innocent. Please do not deliver me to France.’

Rahimifar’s wife Hajar, 33, and their four children, are believed to remain in Denmark – and he is asking to serve any prison sentence there, rather than in France.

Rahimifar claims to have fled the troubled Iranian town of Sardasht, near the Iraq border, before arriving in Scandanavia in 2016.

Rahimifar’s wife Hajar Rasouli (pictured), 33, and their four children, are believed to remain in Denmark

 Rahimifar’s wife Hajar Rasouli (pictured), 33, and their four children, are believed to remain in Denmark

He was convicted of being a ‘Peeping Tom’ in Denmark shortly before his manslaughter arrest two years ago, being fined to spying on a woman undressing.

The armada of small boats trafficking migrants across the Channel has been soaring – from being almost unheard of a few years ago, to an astonishing 45,756 in 2022, including 90 on Christmas Day.

The case continues.

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