Friday, October 24, 2014

Sham wedding trial collapses: Judge slams lies of border staff as he is forced to free asylum vicar 'who ran conveyor belt of bogus marriages'

A vicar suspected of running Britain’s biggest sham marriage racket has walked free after his £1million trial dramatically collapsed as a result of ‘serious misconduct’ by the Border Agency.

The Rev Nathan Ntege, 54, was accused of overseeing a ‘matrimonial conveyor belt’ of Eastern European brides at his parish.

The jury was told weddings at his church rocketed from six a year to up to nine a day – with chaotic ‘cattle market’ scenes as brides who seemed to scarcely know their grooms hurriedly squeezed into ill-fitting shared wedding dresses in the lavatories.

But all charges against the Uganda-born clergyman were thrown out. In extraordinary courtroom scenes:

Judge Nic Madge accused two officials of perjury and perverting the course of justice;

Defence lawyers claimed immigration officer Maggie Harkins and chief immigration officer John Bradbourne destroyed and tampered with evidence, acted dishonestly and interfered with the investigation log;

The court heard that five months of evidence, including key admissions by some of the accused, vanished, only to reappear at the 11th hour;

Harkins faces a misconduct inquiry after it was revealed she posted the slogan ‘Peppa Pig against Muslims’ on her Facebook page.

The collapse of the trial leaves taxpayers with a £1million bill and means two disgraced public servants – who have since been suspended from duty – could now face criminal charges themselves.

Angela Pelachie, 54, and Innocent Odoh, 34, were also accused of being involved in the scam. The court previously heard that couples lined up at the back of the church before having their ceremonies

It is also a huge embarrassment for the now-defunct Home Office agency and raises fresh questions about the state of the nation’s beleaguered immigration controls.

Ntege, who wore his dog collar in the dock at Inner London Crown Court, was accused of carrying out 494 fake marriages, an average of one every other day, between December 2007 and March 2011. He joined St Jude’s with St Aidan’s Church in Thornton Heath, South London, in 2002, after seeking asylum from Uganda.

The vicar was ‘fast-tracked’ into the post because officials were desperate to recruit more Africans – and in the words of the prosecutor, thought he brought ‘a bit of colour to proceedings’ in the Church.

But suspicions were aroused of a ‘no questions asked policy’ when the Church went from conducting six marriages a year to up to nine a day.

Ntege was accused of knowingly presiding over sham marriages as almost £70,000 in wedding fees went missing.

Verger Brian Miller, 81, and Maudlyn Riviere, the 67-year-old church secretary, as well as four others, were also accused of being part of the ‘industrial-scale’ plot. They all denied the charges.

Most of the weddings involved Bulgarians who had the right to live and work in Britain marrying husbands or wives from outside the EU whose UK visas had expired.

But after several days of legal argument, Judge Madge threw out the case, saying to proceed would endanger the ‘integrity’ of the courts. He agreed there had been an ‘abuse of process’ involving Harkins, who led the inquiry, and her boss, Bradbourne.

In scathing comments, the judge said: ‘Officers at the heart of this prosecution have deliberately concealed important evidence and lied on oath. It has tainted the whole case.’ Last night, Ntege described the case as a ‘perversion of justice’ and said the high number of weddings was due to the increasing popularity of his church.

He told Channel 4 News: ‘Most of them were legitimate. I don’t say we weren’t duped – there were a few who tried to use the advantage – but whenever they were caught, we reported it to the diocese, the Home Office and the police.’

The saga has been referred to the Independent Police Complaints Commission (IPCC) and the Home Office and Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) announced internal inquiries.

Harkins, Bradbourne and a third officer have been suspended. One source said: ‘The UK Border Agency must have trusted these officers to give them the biggest sham marriage case Britain has ever seen.

‘They must be seen to take this very seriously. These were both experienced officers who had worked on a number of cases. It calls into question how those cases were carried out.’

A Home Office spokesman said: ‘The collapse of this trial is an extremely disappointing end to a long investigation. We expect the highest standards from all our staff, and clearly we are treating the judge’s ruling that our officers acted in bad faith with the utmost seriousness.’ A CPS spokesman said: ‘We accept the ruling that the prosecution case has been fatally undermined.’

Original report here

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