~ One defendant acquitted ~
PHILIPSBURG--Three persons suspected of involvement in a human-smuggling operation in January 2023 will be learning their fate on June 7. One of their co-defendants was acquitted for lack of evidence in the Court of First Instance on Wednesday.
All four suspects were charged with preparing a human-smuggling operation from Dutch St. Maarten/French St. Martin to the United States Virgin Islands (USVI), January 7-8, 2023. One of the suspects, D.C.B. (36), was also charged with involvement in a successful human smuggling operation January 27-28, 2023. In his case, the Prosecutor’s Office demanded a four-year prison sentence and confiscation of a harpoon.
The woman B.L.K. (43), who is held for the organiser of the January 7-8 transport of 10 undocumented persons from Cuba, Venezuela and the Dominican Republic, including one child, to St. John’s, is facing 24 months, eight of which are to be suspended, on two years’ probation.
Bus driver L.V. (44) allegedly transported the illegal immigrants to K.’s apartment on Bush Road, that served as meeting point for the operation. He reportedly received $200 for his services.
He also was to deliver US $20,200 to a man who was waiting for the immigrants in Marigot, supposedly to take them to a boat to transport them to the USVI, the prosecutor said during Wednesday’s hearing. The bus never made it to the meeting point in Marigot as it was stopped by the police in Cole Bay and the passengers arrested.
According to the prosecutor, V. should also be sentenced to 24 months, eight of which were to be suspended, on two years’ probation. His bus should be confiscated and he should be ordered to pay $20,200, the prosecutor said.
The prosecutor demanded 20 months, eight of which were to be suspended, on two years’ probation, and confiscation of his vehicle, against suspect C.E.G.A. However, the court decided to acquit the man, as according to the judge, it could not be proven that he knew that his girlfriend, whom he dropped off at Domino’s Pizza on Bush Road, was one of the passengers in the human-smuggling operation.
His acquittal was a late birthday present for the defendant, who celebrated his 41st birthday on Monday, May 15. The Prosecutor’s Office has two weeks to file an appeal.
Attorney Thaïsa Heymans successfully pleaded with the court that suspect A. was not aware of human smuggling and that the Prosecutor’s Office had no evidence that there would have been close cooperation between the suspects. He was the victim of a case of being “at the wrong place, at the wrong time,” Heymans said.
Lawyer Brenda Brooks added that the prosecutor’s allegations against A. were only based on “feelings” and “strong impressions”.
Suspect K. largely confessed to the allegations, while her three co-defendants denied any involvement. From wiretaps and observations by the Police Human Trafficking Team, which started in early December 2022, it emerged that K. allegedly was busy preparing a transport of undocumented persons from St. Maarten to the USVI against payment of $2,500 per person. K. was to receive $300 for her services, the prosecutor said.
K. admitted that she needed the money because she could not sustain herself and her family as a masseuse during and after the coronavirus pandemic. However, she denied that she was making human smuggling “a habit”.
Attorney Geert Hatzmann claimed that K. was not one of the organisers or operators. “She only made her home available, introduced two passengers and acted as a cashier. She is not a co-perpetrator, but an accomplice, but that has not been charged,” he said in defence of his client.
V. only offered his services as a bus driver and had no suspicion that his passengers were illegal immigrants, his lawyer Marlon Hart told the court in pleading for his client’s acquittal, or dismissal from all prosecution.
On behalf of suspect B., who was not present as he was sent home to his native Colombia, Hart said that B. had no knowledge of human smuggling and that he never participated in such crime. The lawyer said his client was a construction worker and taxi driver without a criminal record. “He has unsuspectingly done his job as a taxi driver.”
The judge said he will take three weeks to consider all the evidence in this case.