Mother who smuggled asylum-seekers 'feared for life of kidnapped son'

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A young mother was cleared of smuggling 26 people into Britain yesterday after a court was told she had been forced to do so by gangsters who were holding her son hostage.

When the 23 Sri Lankan men and three women were found in the back of her sweat-drenched van at Dover, some had collapsed and others were fighting for breath.

Tanja Worner, 27, burst into tears and hugged her translator as the not-guilty verdict was delivered by the jury at Canterbury Crown Court.

Miss Worner denied knowingly smuggling the asylum-seekers into the country, claiming she was acting under duress. She said she had been forced into the trip by a gang that had threatened to kill her nine-year-old son, Sebastian, if she did not obey its orders.

The 26 illegal immigrants were found in the van at Dover Eastern Docks on 29 September last year. They had, the prosecution said, endured a suffocating 10-hour journey of "human misery".

The vehicle was heavily insulated and the stowaways struggled for breath. The heat was so intense in the back of the vehicle that condensation was running down the walls and steam billowed from the rear when it was opened.

Miss Worner, from Cologne, Germany, told the court she had initially been paid about £1,000 to deliver what she thought was furniture to France, leaving her son with friends.

But when she called to check on her son on her arrival in Paris she was told her son would be killed if she did not take two immigrants into the UK. Miss Worner admitted smuggling two people across the Channel but said another 24 immigrants had been stowed away on the Ford Iveco box van without her knowing. Graeme Ford, for the prosecution, told the jury of seven men and five women that Ms Worner had neglected many opportunities to go to the police before she committed any crime.

But Crispin Cartwright, for the defence, said the young woman had only acted as many worried mothers would. "Miss Worner was seen as a lamb for the slaughter by this gang," he added.

"I am sure many of the jury have children and grandchildren of a similar age to Miss Worner's son.

"And if the chips were down you would probably lay down your life for that child."