Priti Patel admits she had to remove tweet that could have collapsed Essex lorry deaths trial

Home secretary says right to pull social media message ‘drafted’ for her while trial was ongoing

Adam Forrest
Tuesday 22 December 2020 15:35
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Priti Patel admits deleting tweet during trial

The home secretary, Priti Patel, has admitted she deleted a tweet about “ruthless criminals” after she was warned it could endanger the trial involving the deaths of 39 Vietnamese migrants.

Two members of a people-smuggling ring were found guilty of the manslaughter of the men, women and children discovered dead in the back of a trailer in Essex on 23 October last year.

Following Monday’s verdict, it can now be revealed that the judge in the case was forced to tell the jury to ignore comments made by “politicians” on social media following a tweet issued by Ms Patel on the anniversary of the deaths.

Asked if she accepted she had made a mistake to comment while the trial was ongoing, Ms Patel told BBC Breakfast on Tuesday: “We were asked to remove that tweet, so we did the right thing and absolutely removed that tweet.”

She added: “I didn’t personally write it, but I issued the tweet. Some of my tweets are written for me, and in that instance that was drafted for me … It was drawn to my attention at the time that obviously the case was ongoing and therefore the tweet should be removed.”

Ms Patel suggested her tweet about “ruthless criminals” had been intended to refer to those had already entered guilty pleas to a series of charges in relation to the deaths.

Asked if the decision to remove the tweet came after a warning by the judge, she said: “I can’t remember – we had been formally asked to remove it and that’s effectively what happened.”

Ms Patel’s tweet from 23 October 2020 said: “One year ago today 39 people lost their lives in horrific circumstances at the hands of ruthless criminals. My thoughts remain with everyone who was affected by that day, particularly the loves ones of the people who so tragically died.”

Mr Justice Sweeney had to warn jurors in the case to disregard comments made by politicians and others on the anniversary of the deaths of 39 Vietnamese migrants in a lorry.

“You just ignore any such comments. It’s a fundamental principle of our criminal justice system that those on trial are presumed to be innocent until proven to be guilty and it is you and you alone who are going to decide whether they are guilty or not guilty.”

The lorry was found in Grays in Essex

The post was retweeted and liked more than 300 times before it came to the attention of a defence lawyer. Alisdair Williamson QC formally complained about the description of “ruthless criminals”, stating: “It is unhelpful to say the least, and a lot worse could be said.”

A Home Office spokesperson said: “The home secretary’s tweet intended to refer to individuals who were involved in the incident and had already entered guilty pleas. The tweet was not intended to reference individuals involved in the ongoing trial.

“However, as soon as concerns were raised, the tweet was deleted.”

On Monday Eamonn Harrison, a 24-year-old truck driver from Northern Ireland, and Gheorghe Nica, 43, from Essex, were found guilty of 39 counts of manslaughter and one count of conspiracy to assist unlawful immigration, following a 10-week trial. They will be sentenced at a later date.

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