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Asylum seeker Ibrahima Bah found guilty of manslaughter over Channel deaths

An asylum seeker who piloted an “overloaded and vulnerable” dinghy across the English Channel on which four people drowned has been found guilty of manslaughter in a landmark case.

In the first prosecution of its kind, a jury at Canterbury Crown Court also convicted Ibrahima Bah of facilitating a breach of immigration law.

Ibrahima Bah was charged with four counts of manslaughter over fatal small boat incident in English Channel Picture: (Elizabeth Cook/PA)
Ibrahima Bah was charged with four counts of manslaughter over fatal small boat incident in English Channel Picture: (Elizabeth Cook/PA)

It took the six men and six women just over 19 hours to deliver their verdicts today at what was a retrial.

The original jury was discharged at the same court in July last year after they were unable to reach a decision on the same charges.

Although those who pilot small boats are frequently brought before the court Bah, whose age has simply been stated as over 18, was the first to be prosecuted in England and Wales when those onboard have come to harm.

At the start of the trial four weeks ago, jurors were told by judge Mr Justice Johnson to ignore any “strong emotion” to what was a “distressing” event.

They found him guilty of manslaughter by gross negligence on majority verdicts of 10-2, and unanimously guilty of the immigration breach. He now faces a life sentence.

The Senegal national admitted he was given free travel by people-smugglers in northern France in return for steering the poorly-constructed vessel but claimed he had acted under duress.

At least 43 passengers, all male and one as young as 13 years old, were on the inflatable when it sailed from the beach at Calais under the cover of darkness.

Some had paid as much as 8,000 euros for the perilous crossing into UK territorial waters in the early hours of December 14, 2022.

But the small craft, no more than 28ft in length, was ‘unseaworthy’ and neither ‘typically designed nor manufactured’ to undertake a journey in what is considered the world’s busiest shipping lane.

There were insufficient lifejackets, no safety equipment such as flares or a radio, no deck boards and was being navigated without lights and by mobile phone.

It was also carrying more than double its maximum passenger capacity of 20 and Bah, albeit he had worked as a fisherman, was untrained, unlicensed, and said to be driving at excessive speed.

Asylum seekers rescued from the capsized boat arrived at Dover. Picture: Warren Grant
Asylum seekers rescued from the capsized boat arrived at Dover. Picture: Warren Grant

Bah, who was one of 39 migrants eventually pulled to safety, was said by the prosecution to have ‘voluntarily consorted’ with the organised crime agents at the beach launch point and as the pilot had “duty of care” for his fellow passengers

Prosecutor Duncan Atkinson KC said at the start of the trial that the risks ‘to life and limb’ of putting ‘a home-built inflatable made from low quality materials’ such as plywood to sea were ‘present, obvious and serious’.

The court heard the boat did not reach even minimum manufacturing standards and, even if properly made, was designed for use closer to the shore in favourable weather and water conditions.

Survivors later told police that the craft had quickly taken on water and was knee-high within 30 minutes.

Attempts were made to bale it out with a bucket but it was then described as deflating or bursting before it ‘broke apart’ and split in two, the court heard.

Migrants fell off or clung to the side. They were scared, screaming and had even at one point on their journey contacted the French police for help, said Mr Atkinson.

They were eventually rescued by a British fishing dredger Arcturus, in a joint operation with the RNLI, air ambulance and UK Border Force.

One survivor, Afghani national Nesar Durrani, later revealed the boat pilot had even joked ‘I will either take you there or kill you all’ as it had started to sink.

Another migrant recalled passengers shouting they were going to die and to surrender to French police, only to be told by Bah that they should ‘just wait another 20 minutes, you gonna be in UK water’, the court heard.

Bah, of no fixed address, denied four charges of manslaughter in respect of a male who was later identified as Hajratullah Ahmadi as well as three unknown males.

Emergency crews at the scene in Dover in December 2022
Emergency crews at the scene in Dover in December 2022

He also denied facilitating the commission of a breach of UK immigration law.

Giving evidence with the assistance of a Wolof language interpreter, the asylum seeker told the jury he had originally agreed to pilot the boat in return for free travel for himself and his friend.

But when he changed his mind on seeing the state of the dinghy and the number clambering on at the beach, he claimed he was beaten and threatened by the people-smuggling Kurdish agents.

“When I said I’m not doing it, I was beaten up and they showed me that if I didn’t pilot the boat they were going to beat me up and kill me,” Bah told the court.

“I could only do what they wanted me to do and save my life.”

He added the agents were armed with small pistols and knives.

It was his “dream” to come to the UK to seek asylum, jurors heard. He left Senegal as long ago as 2019, travelling to Mali, Algeria and then Libya.

From there he travelled by boat to Italy, again using human traffickers, before journeying to France and, after three months, heading for England.

He did not claim asylum however in either Italy or France.

Bah told jurors he had seen videos on WhatsApp of similar crossings and people being rescued from the water.

The marina in Dover was taped off following the tragedy
The marina in Dover was taped off following the tragedy

Asked by his barrister Richard Thomas KC what his expectation was, Bah said: “Our hope was to reach British waters, see a British ship and claim asylum after we had been picked up by them.

“All of us (on board) had the same intention. Get here and claim asylum.”

Bah added that crossing by boat was “the only way” for him to reach England but denied knowing it was illegal to do so.

He also denied making any jokes about “killing” his passengers, and it emerged that his friend was among those who drowned.

The prosecution however told the court that he ‘deliberately and knowingly’ facilitated the migrants’ arrival, and ‘exerted control’ over them as he did so.

Mr Atkinson said: “He, as the pilot, owed to the passengers of that small and vulnerable boat their safety during the crossing that he had agreed to make.

“He was aware the boat was overcrowded, lacking in safety equipment and that, as it took in water, it was increasingly unseaworthy.

“It would have been abundantly clear that there was an obvious and serious risk of death to those on board.

“Such a failure on his part for his passengers’ safety, leading to the deaths of at least four of them, amounts to manslaughter by reason of his gross negligence.”

Despite water quickly reaching the passengers’ knees, the prosecutor said Bah continued to head into UK waters.

Bah was sentenced at Canterbury Crown Court
Bah was sentenced at Canterbury Crown Court

“Indeed, one passenger considered that the defendant was driving the boat at an unsafe and excessive speed,” added the prosecutor.

“That passenger also heard him say ‘I will either take you there or kill you all’.

However, another described Bah as their “saviour and angel”, the court heard.

The rescue operation got underway at about 2.30am and 200 metres inside UK waters. Among the 31 survivors pulled onto Arcturus, six were under the age of 18.

The exact number who drowned is unknown as at least one migrant’s body was not recovered.

The four bodies that were found were said to be two adult males, a young black male and a young, teenage black male.

Bah was arrested and interviewed by police two days later. He has remained in custody since and will be sentenced on Friday.

At the end of the case, Mr Justice Johnson praised the interpreter for his “completely invaluable and extraordinary” assistance to the court, describing it as “a masterclass in court interpretation.”

Speaking after the trial, specialist CPS prosecutor Libby Clark said: “Bah claimed that he had sailed boats before and, as a result, received free passage, whereas everyone else on the boat had paid thousands of Euros to make the tragic journey.

“The boat he piloted was never designed to undertake a crossing in the world’s busiest shipping lane and would have been all but invisible to other ships.

“Navigation was carried out with just mobile phones, as there were no other navigational aids available.

“There is no evidence to suggest that Bah had any training in piloting a boat like this or keeping people safe and, as the pilot, he assumed responsibility for ensuring the safety of his fellow passengers.

“Any reasonable person would have recognised that by piloting such an ill-equipped and overloaded boat in such dangerous circumstances, there was an obvious risk of serious harm to the passengers. As a result of Bah’s actions, four men tragically lost their lives in the Channel that night.

“Our thoughts remain with their families.”

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