A London-based crime group who tried to smuggle 69 Albanian migrants into the UK on a dilapidated fishing vessel - and planned to bring in 50 more every week - have been convicted.
The 30-metre converted trawler 'Svanic' was intercepted off the Norfolk coast on 17 November last year.
The boat - built nearly 60 years ago and with a lifeboat for just 20 people - had set sail from the Ostend area of Belgium and was heading towards Great Yarmouth.
It was escorted into Harwich international port in an operation involving the National Crime Agency, Border Force, HM Coastguard, Immigration Enforcement and Essex Police.
The NCA had been alerted to the vessel by the Maritime Analysis and Operations Centre in Lisbon. MAOC received a report of suspicious activity from the Swedish authorities who had to assist the Svanic after it ran aground 15 days prior to picking up the migrants.
The vessel, which had been purchased in Latvia for around 20,000 euros in October 2020, was to run aground a second time before collecting the migrants in Belgium.
The three crew members - Igor Kosyi, aged 56, and Volodymyr Mykhailov, 49, both from Ukraine, and Alexsandrs Gulpe, 44, from Latvia - were arrested by the NCA on suspicion of facilitating illegal immigration. The 69 migrants were handed to Immigration Enforcement.
NCA investigators seized a laptop from the vessel, which enabled them to identify the UK-based gang which had orchestrated the attempt.
The computer had been given to the crew by Latvian national Sergejs Kuliss, 32, of Albert Basin Way, Newham, London. Phone evidence showed Kuliss was in Great Yarmouth, Norfolk, on the night of the smuggling attempt, awaiting the arrival of the boat.
Throughout the day Kuliss had been in contact with fellow conspirators Lithuanian national Arturas Jusas, 35, living in Lambeth, and Israeli national Kfir Ivgi, 39, from Finchley.
Messages found on their phones showed the three men spent weeks discussing their plans to invest in a boat for the purpose of smuggling people, with Jusas claiming 'from first trip we're going to get the money back'.
Once the Svanic had been identified as a possible purchase Kuliss sent a sequence of photographs and videos of the boat to Jusas, which he forwarded to Ivgi. He replied: 'Yes, yes, yes...I don't care how it looks like, it's good', indicating he didn't care about the condition of the vessel.
In one audio messages found on his phone following his arrest, Jusas boasted to Ivgi that he planned to 'bring every week 50 people'. Other messages showed he was in contact with people on the 'other side' who wanted to move migrants to the UK.
The trio had also scoped out potential landing sites for the vessel, which had only 21 lifejackets on board, eventually settling on Great Yarmouth.
After the interception the gang shared online news reports about the incident with each other, with Ivgi messaging Jusas to say 'clean the...phone'.
Jusas, Ivgi and Kuliss were arrested during a series of NCA raids in June this year after investigators were able to piece together their involvement in the plot.
They were charged alongside Kosyi, Mykhailov, and Gulpe with conspiring to facilitate illegal immigration.
Jusas pleaded guilty at Chelmsford Crown Court on 6 August, but following an eight-week week trial at the same court Ivgi, Kuliss, Gulpe and Kosyi were found guilty today (17 November) - exactly a year since the boat was intercepted.
Volodymyr Mykhailov was found not guilty.
Jusas and the four convicted will be sentenced at a later date.
NCA Director of Investigations Nikki Holland said: "There is no stronger example of how organised criminals are prepared to risk the lives of the people they smuggle for profit.
"The Svanic was in an appalling condition, and in no fit state to make the perilous journey from Belgium to the UK. Had it got into trouble, the consequences could have been fatal as there was only one lifeboat and 21 lifejackets.
"The dangers wouldn't have crossed the minds of these men, whose sole motive was to line their pockets. They were planning to use this deathtrap over and over again.
"Cases like these strengthen our resolve to come down hard on the organised criminals behind people smuggling, who ply their trade on exploitation and misery."
David Fairclough, Deputy Director, Immigration Enforcement Criminal Investigation, said: "These callous criminals had big plans to orchestrate a lucrative criminal operation at the expense of people's safety using an unseaworthy vessel with only 20 lifejackets onboard.
"It is sickening that criminal gangs like this have no regard for the value of human life only seeing them as a way to make money. As recent tragic events show these journeys are unnecessary, perilous, and sadly sometimes fatal.
"Thanks to the culmination of efforts across the Home Office and NCA, we've slammed the breaks on this ruthless crime gang, and they will now receive the justice they deserve."
17 November 2021