Hungary indicted 11 people suspected of being smugglers on Thursday in the suffocation of 71 refugees, whose decomposing bodies were found stuffed inside a locked truck parked in neighboring Austria two summers ago at the height of Europe’s migration crisis.
The indictments of the suspects, including at least one Afghan, a Lebanese and several Bulgarians, were announced by Hungarian prosecutors. They also revealed for the first time that 67 other refugees had narrowly averted the same fate from the same smuggling ring, by kicking open the doors of their truck to escape.
The discovery of the bodies in the truck, in the sweltering heat on Aug. 27, 2015, became a turning point in the European Union’s disorganized response to the waves of migrants flooding into the Continent to escape war and deprivation in the Middle East and elsewhere.
It was made just as European leaders, including Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany, were gathered in the splendor of Vienna’s Hofburg palace to discuss the mass migration. There was ashen-faced anguish at the news. Days later, Ms. Merkel reached her now-famous decision to admit refugees who had been refused passage from Hungary.
On Thursday, 20 months after the police unlocked the truck found on the shoulder of the Budapest-Vienna highway, the first formal charges against those suspected of being the perpetrators were brought.
The Afghan defendant, identified only as L. and said to be 30 years old, was described as the ringleader. Operating a people-smuggling ring from February to August 2015, he earned 300,000 euros, the prosecutors said in a statement summarizing their indictment.
His two chief accomplices were identified by prosecutors as M., a 31-year-old Bulgarian who led a team of Bulgarian drivers, and K., a 51-year-old dual citizen of Bulgaria and Lebanon, who obtained vehicles and registration plates.
The statement included details on how the refugees — 59 men, eight women and four children from Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan and Iran — had died. One person, according to the Hungarian police last October, is yet to be identified.
On the morning of Aug. 26, 2015, the statement said, “members of the criminal organization” locked the refugees into a truck near Morahalom, a town close to Hungary’s border with Serbia, and a way station along the Balkan route that so many migrants followed that summer.
“Approximately half an hour after the departure, the migrants indicated with bangs and cries that they were running out of oxygen,” the statement said. “The signals were heard by the driver,” a 25-year-old Bulgarian identified only as l. and a “forerunner,” said to be a 38-year-old Bulgarian identified only as T., who apparently accompanied the truck in a separate vehicle.
“Through their Bulgarian boss, they reported the problem to the Afghan head of the criminal organization who ordered them several times not to open the door,” the statement added, “to ignore the people suffocating there and to reach Western Europe as soon as possible.”
“Even though they could have helped the victims, the driver and the forerunner complied with the instruction of their boss and the Afghan leader,” the statement said. The 71 victims, it said, “suffocated in horrendous conditions three hours from departure.”
They died while the truck had still been in Hungary, it added.
The two Bulgarians crossed into Austria and parked the truck on the side of the highway close to an outlet shopping mall in Parndorf, southeast of Vienna. They then returned to Hungary “using the forerunner vehicle,” the statement said.
The Austrian police noticed and opened the truck the next day.