Vicar 'married hundreds in fraudulent ceremonies'

An Anglican vicar deliberately breached Britain's immigration laws by conducting hundreds of sham marriages between Africans and Europeans, a court heard yesterday.

Prosecutors allege that Reverend Alexander Brown, 61, was part of an organised criminal network that oversaw a "massive and systematic immigration fraud" from inside St Peter and St Paul church in St Leonards-on-sea, East Sussex.

A jury at Lewes Crown Court heard how scores of predominantly eastern and central European nationals, as well as some French and Finnish, were paid up to £3,000 each to enter into bogus marriages with African men and women so that they could remain in the country.

The majority of Europeans involved in the scam were described as "vulnerable" or jobless migrants desperate for cash. The majority of African nationals hailed from Nigeria and Rwanda.

Yesterday afternoon, Rev Brown took the stand alongside his two co-defendants, Vladymyr Buchak, a 33-year-old Ukrainian who is accused of finding willing Europeans, and Reverend Michael Adelasoye, a 50-year-old evangelical preacher and immigration solicitor.

David Walbank, opening the case for the prosecution, described how the number of marriages taking place at Rev Brown's red-brick chapel on the outskirts of Hastings increased 30-fold over a four-year period between 2005 and 2009. Using the church's marriage register, Mr Walbank said 13 people had been married in the four years before July 2005. But over the following four years, 383 couples were married there, the vast majority of whom – at least 360 – had eastern European and African names.

The jury heard how, following Rev Brown's arrest on 13 June 2009, he claimed to police that he had grown "suspicious" about the large number of foreigners marrying at his church and said he was intending to cut down on them.

Mr Walbank countered that "almost half" the marriages, 168, were carried out in the six months prior to the vicar's arrest. He said: "[Rev Brown] conducted each of these wedding ceremonies ostensibly according to the rites of the Church of England, but knowing full well these were sham marriages not entered into for the proper reasons but as part of an immigration fraud."

The court also heard how Mr Buchak, who had been living illegally in the country since at least 2004, was responsible for "cajoling and persuading" the eastern Europeans into the marriages of convenience. Rev Adelasoye, a preacher who also ran a law firm advising migrants in immigration law, is accused of advising the participants.

Mr Walbank said he would call 10 witnesses who had agreed to sham marriages.

In the prosecution's opening statement to the jury he illustrated three examples of alleged sham marriages between two Lithuanians, one Estonian and three Nigerians.

One Lithuanian man, Egidijus Salasevicius, married a Nigerian national, Chy Chy Perpetua Ifeagwazi, at St Peter's in April 2007 after meeting Mr Buchak while working at a sausage factory. Ms Ifeagwazi had been sacked from her job at a nearby nursing home because her visa had run out. She was later rehired when she announced that she would be marrying a European national and would, as a result, have permission to stay in the UK.

On the couple's wedding night the court heard how Ms Ifeagwazi returned to the nursing home where she worked and completed a night shift, rather than spend the day with her new husband. "She was working that night, the night that should have been her wedding night if this had been a normal wedding arrangement," said Mr Walbank. "Nothing better, we say, could illustrate the bogus nature of this supposed marriage that these two people went through."

The same month, Mr Walbank alleged, Inge Rajaste, 55, a Estonian divorcee, married Joseph T Nduka, 30, a security guard, at a ceremony in St Peter's. Ms Rajaste, the jury heard, met Mr Buchak after answering an advert for work. He subsequently installed her in a shared flat on Kings Road in St Leonards and allegedly offered her £3,000 to marry Mr Nduka, the court heard.

"It is clear that the purpose of that sham marriage was to enable Joseph Induka to breach the UK's immigration laws," Mr Walbank told the jury. "Records from the Home Office show that within a month of marriage taking place he applied to the Home Office for a right of residence because of that marriage."

Mr Buchak has pleaded guilty to a charge of using false identity documents. The three defendants, who are all from St Leonards, deny breaching immigration laws. The trial is expected to last six weeks.

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