LONDON (Reuters) - A vicar was found guilty on Thursday of conducting hundreds of sham marriages between African nationals and cash-strapped eastern Europeans to allow illegal immigrants to gain residency in Britain.
Rev Alex Brown, 61, presided over 360 fake ceremonies over four years, including several cases in which participants canceled one wedding only to marry someone else a month or two later, and another in which a person was registered to marry two people on the same day.
Of the hundreds of people Brown married, 90 couples were registered as living in one road in the parish and in some cases several brides and grooms claimed to live in the same house, the Press Association reported.
Brown’s co-defendant Vladymyr Buchak, 33, was also found guilty of conspiring to breach immigration laws by paying eastern Europeans up to 3,000 pounds ($4,700) to marry Africans, mainly from Nigeria, to allow them to obtain the documents they needed to live and work in Britain.
The court heard Buchak, a Ukrainian national who had himself been living illegally in Britain since at least 2004, was responsible for “cajoling and persuading” the eastern Europeans into the marriages of convenience, preying on migrant workers in the area who were desperate to earn money.
Although Buchak was seen as the main organizer of the operation, prosecutor David Walbank said there was no doubt Brown must have been fully aware that the majority of the weddings he was conducting at the church were shams.
Giving evidence during the seven-week trial, Brown insisted he only ever married couples he was sure were getting married for the right reasons and exceptions would only be made if the bride-to-be was imminently expected to give birth.
But he admitted he occasionally forgot to check the passports of foreign nationals wanting to get married to make sure they had indefinite leave to remain in Britain.
He said he became suspicious of one or two couples, but only because of vast differences in age between the bride and groom.
The court heard Brown conducted a total of 383 marriages at his church in East Sussex, southeast England, over the period, a 30-fold increase on the 13 he had conducted over the previous four years.
Brown was arrested on June 30 last year following an investigation by police and the UK Border Agency.
During a search of his vicarage and the church at St Leonards-on-Sea, police found documents he had doctored, including the church’s electoral roll plus a second, altered copy, which he had filled out to hide the dramatic increase in weddings over which he was presiding.
The jury at Lewes Crown Court is still deliberating on a third defendant, Nigerian-born Michael Adelasoye, 50, a specialist in immigration law who is accused of helping the African participants by advising them with their applications for residency once they were married.
Reporting by Kylie MacLellan; Editing by Steve Addison