Man wanted over migrant drownings tried to bribe victims' families-UK court hears

LONDON, Nov 30 (Reuters) - A man wanted by France for involvement in the deaths of at least 27 migrants who drowned trying to cross the Channel last year is also accused of trying to bribe the victims' families to stay quiet, a London court was told on Wednesday.

Harem Ahmed Abwbaker, 32, who was arrested by British police on Tuesday, faces extradition to France where authorities want to charge him with seven offences relating to the drownings last November, the worst disaster on record involving migrants in the sea separating the two countries.

Prosecutor Michael McHardy, representing the French authorities, said Abwbaker was accused of being the right hand man of the leader of an organised criminal group involved in people smuggling.

The victims had paid $3,200 each to make the perilous crossing, and Abwbaker had been responsible for getting the migrants onto the vessel, the prosecutor told London's Westminster Magistrates' Court, with records showing his phone had been detected at the site of the launch.

'NO CHANCE'

McHardy said the boat had been "totally unsuitable", with a poor design, lacking the necessary navigational equipment and with inadequate life-saving equipment.

"The occupants had no chance of being able to face any event at sea," he said.

McHardy told the court the warrant for Abwbaker's arrest also specified that he had been in contact with the victims' families since the event to offer them money to stay silent.

The number of people attempting to cross the Channel has rocketed in the last couple of years, with figures released by the government last week showing 33,029 people had been detected trying to make the precarious 20-mile (32-km) crossing by small boats between January and September this year.

Earlier this month, Britain signed an agreement with France to ramp up efforts to stop migrants, and is also seeking to deport migrants who arrive illegally to Rwanda in an attempt to deter the crossings.

Abwbaker, who spoke through a Kurdish Sorani translator, gave his address as a hotel in Cheltenham, west England, and McHardy said he had made a claim for asylum.

"I do not consent," Abwbaker said when asked if he agreed to be extradited. "What you are talking about is my life and my freedom."

Judge Paul Goldspring, England's Chief Magistrate, said the allegations were "very serious" and Abwbaker would go to prison for a long time" if he were to be found guilty.

The date for a full extradition hearing was set for April 3 and Abwbaker was remanded in custody.

Reporting by Michael Holden Editing by Gareth Jones

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