Sham marriages on 'unprecedented scale'

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The Independent Online

The scale of the sham marriages was on an unprecedented scale involving "classic exploitation" of foreign nationals desperate to stay in the UK, investigators said.

Cash-strapped Eastern Europeans were promised sums of up to £3,000 to marry Africans to help them gain residency in the UK and a chance of a better life.

Through gaining indefinite leave to stay in the UK, the Africans, mainly from Nigeria, would be able to enjoy Britain's education, healthcare and social benefits systems.

A large proportion of the Africans who went through with the sham marriages had arrived lawfully in the UK, either through the asylum process or by gaining a student visa.

Investigators said it was when they had "reached the end of the line" in their legal applications and appeals to stay in the UK permanently that they went through the sham marriage process.

Files recovered as part of the inquiry showed that, in some cases, Africans were already married and had children in their homeland.

Detective Inspector Andy Cummins, of the UK Border Agency's (UKBA) South East region immigration crime team, said: "In the majority of the cases, the reason that most went through with the marriage process was not for love, it was to assist in their application to residency into the UK."

Both sets of participants were equally vulnerable. The Eastern Europeans tended to be poor migrant workers who found their dreams of making good money gave way to hardship.

Desperate and willing to consider any means to earn cash, they were targeted by the "recruiter" Vladymyr Buchak, who paired them up with Africans.

Ken Goss, of the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS), said: "It's classic exploitation.

"People come into this country expecting jobs, a good life and all that brings with it, then they find themselves in difficult positions and they become vulnerable."

He added: "Certainly for the South East region and indeed nationally, it is an unprecedented number of weddings."

Officers working on Operation Gomozia arrested the Rev Alex Brown on June 30 last year, along with Buchak, an illegal immigrant and gambler who used the alias Kaido Maesalu.

Further investigations identified pastor and solicitor Michael Adelasoye, who had worked as an immigration adviser at several firms of solicitors.

Before going on trial, Brown pleaded guilty to a charge of solemnising a marriage according to the rites of the Church of England without banns of matrimony being duly published.

Mr Goss said: "It's a very unusual offence under the Marriage Act 1949. I'm unaware of any sentencing authority. On researching the offence, I couldn't find any authorities at all."

Why exactly Brown conducted the marriages remains unclear. He denies being manipulated or controlled by anybody or being in it for financial gain.

Cash found at his home was said to have been set aside for his pension. Other sums found correlate with the fees set by the church to conduct weddings.

Brown claimed throughout his interviews and when giving evidence to the jury that he was a "man of the cloth" carrying out what he saw as his obligation to marry people.

What was clear, according to Mr Goss, was the absence of any properly robust accounting system operated by Brown at the church.

Mr Cummins said: "I don't know what his motive was. At a lot of these weddings, cash exchanged hands, as is the norm through the church process.

"We can't say that Brown hasn't taken money for each wedding because there is no obvious motive. We can't show that he has gained financially from it, although there is the suggestion the opportunity was there."

He added: "Brown was asked during the course of his interview about why he was going through with the process. That was his opportunity to say why he did it.

"He has said he wasn't under duress and he has done it as a member of the church and he has to do it. He said it was his duty to marry them."

Mr Cummins said no evidence could be found to suggest Buchak and Adelasoye had targeted Brown.

"There is obviously signs to say that here is a vulnerable guy, let's go and use his church but it just seems to have evolved through their relationship with the church," said Mr Cummins.

Some 90 participants of the sham marriages claimed to have lived in one street near the church. Mr Cummins said: "A couple of addresses that were given are, in fact, on a building site where there have not been any houses for two years."

The trial was told that Brown concealed the number of weddings he conducted in a number of ways.

The publication of banns involves a vicar reading out the names and addresses of the people to be married at three separate Sunday services within three months before the wedding.

As he was keen not to alert his congregation to unfamiliar-sounding names, for a large part of the period in question the banns procedure was not complied with, the trial heard.

On top of that, the sham marriages were carried out outside normal church hours, very rarely on a Saturday, and did not involve those who normally took part in genuine marriages, such as the regular organist.

A further way in which Brown failed to follow proper procedures was in his failure to make regular returns to the church authorities of so-called statistics of mission.

These contain basic statistics relating to the church, including the number of weddings being conducted, or accounting returns recording how much the incumbent had earned in fees for the church.

Such accounting sheets have on the reverse a breakdown of how the fees have been earned, including how many weddings have been conducted and the rate at which they were charged.

Instead of the detailed quarterly breakdowns, Brown only sent to Church House short typed letters enclosing a cheque, fearing that complying with this procedure would have exposed the dramatic rise in weddings being conducted at St Peter's.

Mr Cummins said: "What is significant about the banns process is that he doesn't need to make any declaration to the church of the number of weddings.

"All he has to do is submit the detail into the marriage register and when the register is full, it gets sent to the register office. The only time the church knows anything about the weddings would be when Brown sends in the cash that the church was due to get through the recognised church fees."

It emerged that the earnings for the church rose from £1,000, before the hundreds of marriages occurred, to a staggering £22,000 for the first six months of 2009.

The UK Border Agency (UKBA) said checks on participants' eligibility, such as examining passports to see whether they had indefinite leave to stay in the UK, were clearly not made by Brown.

Gareth Redmond, of the UKBA, said a review was being undertaken of those who took part in the sham marriages to determine how many received citizenship.

Mr Redmond said: "We need to go through each one of those cases and work out what stage they are at before we can work out what to do with each of them."

He said it was important to stress that being married does not in itself confer immigration status, saying that people still have to apply to gain citizenship here.

Mr Redmond said it was recognised that church officials are not experts in immigration law or adept at spotting forged documents.

He said: "We need to offer them support and make sure they are making those types of checks."

Mr Goss said that "at the back of this is something larger".

But he added: "The main players have come to light. It is an unusual offence to which the reverend has pleaded guilty.

"It has certainly been an education for all of us on this case and it has fed inquiries from around the country."