Four jailed in France over fatal 2020 small boat crossing

Organised crime groups are turning to ever more dangerous and un-seaworthy boats in efforts to smuggle people across the Channel to the UK from France, the National Crime Agency has warned. Photo credit: National Crime Agency.

A French court has convicted and sentenced four men over their roles in an attempted small boat Channel crossing which led to the deaths of an Iranian family.

On 27 October 2020 a boat carrying more than twenty migrants capsized off the coast of Dunkirk. 

A major search and rescue operation was launched by French authorities, however a number of people died including 35-year-old Rasoul Iran-Nejad, his wife Shiva Mohammad Panahi, aged 35, and their three children Anita (9), Armin (6), and Artin (15 months). 

Artin’s body was recovered two months later when it washed up on the coast of Norway. Two other people who were believed to be on the boat have never been found.

The incident prompted a major criminal investigation led by the French authorities, supported by the National Crime Agency.

One of the suspects, Assalan Ghorbani, who was suspected of having piloted the boat, was arrested by French authorities in the days after the event.

However during the course of the investigation the NCA continued to provide significant support to the French team investigating the people smuggling attempt.

In June 2021 the NCA received intelligence that one of the key suspects in the enquiry, Rauf Perot Rahimifar, was in Denmark and was in the process of making plans to leave the country and return to Iran.

This was immediately passed to the French authorities, enabling a judge to authorise a European Arrest Warrant and have him arrested by the Danish police that same day. He was eventually extradited back to France to face trial.

On Friday 20 January a court in Dunkirk convicted and sentenced the four for their roles in the attempts and the deaths of the family.

Ringleader Rahimifar received a nine year jail sentence for arranging the attempt, while gang member Mostafa Kakelahi got seven years. Hoshiar Khezri was sentenced to five years for bringing the boat that was used from Denmark to France, while boat pilot Assalan Ghorbani was handed a two-year sentence.

NCA Director of Threat Leadership Chris Farrimond said: “The events of October 2020 were tragic in so many ways, and demonstrate both the terrible dangers of these crossings and the callous nature of the criminals involved.

“These people smugglers saw this family as nothing more than a commodity to be profited from, and cared nothing for their safety or welfare.

“Today’s convictions highlights the close cooperation between UK and French authorities in targeting these criminal networks, and shows that no matter where they operate we will take action to stop them and bring them to justice.”

Home Secretary Suella Braverman said: “This case is another tragic reminder of how people can lose their lives at the hands of the criminals behind these crossings.

“I’m grateful to the NCA for the important role they have played in supporting this investigation, working in tandem with our French partners.

“We will stop at nothing to disrupt the gangs profiting from this lethal trade and ensure they are brought to justice.

The NCA has officers working side by side with their counterparts in Northern France to maximise impact against organised crime groups, not just exchanging intelligence, but working with the French police to build both proactive and reactive investigations for judicial adoption, with a particular focus on small boats threat.

Since the Anglo-French Joint Intelligence Centre was established in July 2020, 59 organised criminal groups involved in small boats crossings, in France, have been dismantled.

In addition the NCA also has a team of liaison officers based in France working on investigative activity with French partners both as part of Project INVIGOR, the UK’s organised immigration crime taskforce, and on wider threats that require Anglo-French law enforcement co-operation.


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