Newham man convicted for plot to smuggle Albanian migrants into UK on boat

A dilapidated boat

The Svanic, the converted trawler used in the plot. - Credit: NCA

A Newham man has been found guilty of conspiring to smuggle 69 Albanian migrants into the UK on a dilapidated fishing boat following a two-month trial.

Sergejs Kuliss was one of four men convicted after a 30m converted trawler, called the Svanic, was intercepted by UK Border Force vessels in the North Sea, off the Norfolk coast, on November 17 last year.

The London-based crime group had planned to bring in 50 more people every week.

Custody image of Sergejs Kuliss, 32, of Albert Basin Way, Newham

Sergejs Kuliss, 32, of Albert Basin Way, Newham was one of four people convicted of conspiring to assist unlawful immigration on November 17 - exactly a year since the boat was intercepted. - Credit: NCA

The vessel - built almost 60 years ago and with a lifeboat for only 20 people - had set sail from the Ostend area of Belgium and was heading towards Great Yarmouth.

After it was escorted by authorities into Harwich, Essex, the three crew members were arrested on suspicion of facilitating illegal immigration and the 69 migrants were handed to Immigration Enforcement.

Tony Badenoch QC, prosecuting, told a trial at Chelmsford Crown Court that the Svanic “displayed a multitude of faults” when it was inspected after it was seized.

“As an example, it only had a maximum lifesaving capacity of 20 persons,” he said, pointing out there were 20 lifejackets for 72 people on board.

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Kuliss, 32, of Albert Basin Way and Kfir Ivgi, 39, of Corrigan Close, Finchley - who prosecutors described as “UK-based organisers” - were both found guilty by unanimous verdicts of conspiring to assist unlawful immigration, a court official said.

Also found guilty of the charge were Latvian national Aleksandrs Gulpe, 44, by a unanimous verdict and Ukrainian national Igor Kosyi, 56, by a majority verdict of 10 jurors to two, a court official said. 

The two men, described by prosecutors as crew members, were arrested when the boat reached land in the early hours of November 18.

Another “UK-based organiser”, Arturas Jusas, 35, of Wandsworth Road, Lambeth had admitted at an earlier hearing to also conspiring to assist unlawful immigration.

Earlier in the trial, jurors were played an audio file from a mobile phone from September 3 last year in which Jusas said: “We’re going to bring every week 50 people, yes, we need to invest now 40,000, if you want, 20 you, 20 me. 

“From first trip we’re going to get the money back."

A sixth man, who the court heard was arrested when the boat reached land, was cleared.

The six defendants had been charged between September and November last year.

The five men who were convicted are to be sentenced on a date to be fixed.

National Crime Agency (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 20 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 death trap over and over again.”

The NCA had been alerted to the vessel by the Maritime Analysis and Operations Centre (MAOC) 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.

NCA investigators seized a laptop from the vessel, which enabled them to identify those who had orchestrated the plot.

The computer had been given to the crew by Kuliss, a Latvian national, who phone evidence showed was in Great Yarmouth on the night of the smuggling attempt, waiting for the boat.

Throughout the day Kuliss had been in contact with Jusas and Ivgi.

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.

The trio had also scoped out potential landing sites for the vessel, eventually settling on Great Yarmouth.