Man jailed for smuggling immigrants across Channel

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A man who claimed he was a human rights activist was jailed for six years today after he smuggled 20 illegal immigrants across the Channel in a 50ft yacht.

French national Enrique Figueroa, 46, said he paid out of his own pocket to bring the group of Asian men and women to the UK for humanitarian reasons, but this was not accepted in court.

His co-defendant, skipper Nelson Bazin, 23, also from France, was sentenced to three and a half years in prison for his "subordinate" role in the scheme.

Hove Crown Court heard that the pair arrived at Brighton Marina on June 27 last year after sailing from Dieppe on a motorised yacht named Pelican that Figueroa had chartered.

Prosecutor Irena Ray-Crosby said that after it had berthed, other yacht owners began to notice "a large number of men and women of oriental or Chinese appearance alighting the yacht".

She said they watched as they walked to a nearby bus stop with Figueroa, then boarded a bus which left the East Sussex marina.

She said the harbour manager received a number of calls and notified the police, immigration authorities and the Coastguard but they were too late to stop the group boarding a train to London at Brighton station.

The court heard that it was not known what happened to the illegal immigrants after Figueroa saw them off at the station. He and Bazin were arrested at the marina two days' later.

In subsequent police interviews Bazin claimed he did not know the immigrants were on board the yacht and said he only became suspicious part-way through the journey.

He said he had met Figueroa three months earlier and had agreed to teach him to sail and skipper the yacht as he had recently qualified.

Sailing was an "obsession" for him, the court heard, and Recorder Peter Gower QC said he accepted that he only became involved in order to gain experience in skippering a vessel.

Figueroa was described as the "prime mover" who organised the operation.

His defence counsel, Jeffrey Lamb, said that after working as a journalist and human rights activist in France campaigning for the rights of illegal immigrants, he decided it would be more effective to physically transport them to a better life.

"His only goal was to get them to this country safely," he said, although he also admitted the defendant was "idealistic and naive".

Given the chance to explain himself, Figueroa, who learnt to speak English during the time he has spent on remand, said: "I know it's illegal but I'm happy that these guys have a new chance in their lives.

"I took absolutely no money from them."

But after hearing of Figueroa's previous convictions, Recorder Gower said he did not believe he was motivated purely for humanitarian reasons due to the "inherent unlikelihood of you being an armed robber turned philanthropist".

The court heard that £770.70 was found on the boat, which Figueroa admitted belonged to him, but there was no further evidence of money changing hands.

Recorder Gower added: "I'm quite sure that you acted for financial gain. I simply do not believe your evidence to the contrary.

"The experience of courts in this country is that defendants traffic people in large numbers for reward. I'm quite sure that you're no exception to the norm."

He said he gave Figueroa credit for pleading guilty to assisting illegal immigration at the first available opportunity, and as he had also admitted he brought six illegal immigrants into Brighton Marina from France on a previous occasion.

Bazin also pleaded guilty to the charge but disputed the facts of the case as he continued to claim he did not know the immigrants were there.

But he accepted the prosecution's evidence against him and the matter went straight to sentence today.

The court heard that Bazin, a former choirboy and Scout, had no previous convictions. Figueroa was sentenced to 14 years in prison in 1996 for carrying out an armed robbery in Spain, for which he served just under five years.

Figueroa, who like his co-defendant wore a suit and had his long hair tied back into a ponytail, shook his head and muttered incoherently as the sentence was passed.

Bazin, who needed the help of an interpreter, did not show any emotion as he was jailed.

Both men were told that the 267 days that had each spent on remand would count towards their sentences.