A teenage human trafficker who let two refugees suffocate in the back of his van has been jailed for seven years.
The teenage student ignored the frantic banging and cries for help as he drove them from Hungary to Austria.
Inside the truck were 30 Syrian refugees desperate to start a new life in the EU.
Judges at the Regional Court of Eisenstadt in the eastern Austrian province of Burgenland found the 19-year-old Latvian student guilty of human trafficking and GBH with lethal outcome.
The court heard how he had picked up the refugees in a forest at the Serbian-Hungarian border in October 2021.
The vehicle was eventually stopped on a lane near Siegendorf by Austrian soldiers patrolling the country’s border with Hungary.
The driver fled but was arrested in his home country two months later.
He told judges: “I deeply regret what happened. I’ve been thinking a lot about it. Now I know that I ruined my life.”
A Syrian who survived the trip said in court: “We were pushed into the van like animals. As if we weren’t human beings.”
State prosecutor Patricia Lendzian said that each of them did not have more space available than the size of an A3 paper which measures 11-3/4 x 16-1/2 inch (297 x 420 millimetres).
Lendzian underlined that the group could hardly breathe in the small van.
The vehicle’s cargo area was just two metres wide and 2.5 metres long (6.56 x 8.2 ft), she added.
The accused said in court that he had never smuggled people over the border before.
A Syrian witness told judges: “After around three hours, we found it more and more difficult to breathe. We screamed and banged against the wall.
“We were begging him in English to open the door. We were shouting: ‘People are dying, just stop!’”
They eventually managed to wrench open the van’s slide door but closed it because they thought they would be seen by Hungarian police.
The two men who died in the van were standing in the middle of the cargo bay, according to Wolfgang Denk, a technical expert appointed by the court.
Denk said an autopsy showed that both of them had suffocated while the van was driving in Hungary hours before the vehicle was stopped by an Austrian border patrol.
The expert added that the 37-year-old victim – who just recovered from COVID-19 – was found to be significantly undernourished.
Denk explained that the other fatality had been a 33-year-old man who suffered from pneumonia and a kidney issue.
The suspect’s defence lawyer denied allegations that his client had acted recklessly.
He claimed the teen had been hired for a shorter journey with fewer refugees.
The teen, he said, had not been present when the refugees entered the van but took the wheel later.
State prosecutors informed the court that the gang behind the illegal transfers had initially planned to split the group and relocate them with two vans.
But when one of the drivers did not turn up, they pushed them all into just one vehicle.
Austrian and Hungarian authorities are still investigating the case to track down the other individuals involved.
Eisenstadt prosecutors think they have made around two million Euros (GBP 1.73 million) in the past three years.
The advocate told judges: “My client was not aware of any life-threatening situation in the back of the van.
“He did not have any water or food with him. He wasn’t doing well either.”
The lawyer claimed that his client had been told by his boss to keep going when he eventually decided to ring him for advice.
The young defendant said: “Not having stopped the car when I realised that they were unwell was the biggest mistake of my life.”
The accused – who does not own a driving licence – pleaded guilty of human trafficking but had denied fatal GBH accusations.
He accepted the verdict of seven years in prison announced by presiding judge Gabriele Nemesker.
It is not yet legally binding as the state prosecution is yet to make its final statement.
Between 100 and 400 illegal migrants are registered at the Austrian-Hungarian border each day.
Austria’s Federal Interior Minister Gerhard Karner recently announced that the number of police officers surveilling the region would be increased significantly by July as a consequence.
Hungary is also part of the European Union (EU). However, many of the refugees – who mostly come from Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan – try to make it to Austria or Germany.
They want to reunite with their families there, but also try to avoid getting caught in Hungary due to the harsh treatment by some officials in the country.