A fake bride, her “naive simpleton” groom and two witnesses to their sham marriage escaped jail when a judge suspended their jail terms.
Antrim Crown Court Judge Donna McColgan QC told 26-year-old fake bride Mudiyanselage Achala Wijekkoon, her groom Herbert O’Neill (42) and their witnesses Zaffar Iqbal (55) and 32-year-old Sarah Ann Dinsmore she was taking the “wholly exceptional” approach because none of the usual aggravating features such as being motivated by cash or the marriage being meticulously planned applied to their crime.
On the morning their trial was due to start last month Wijekkoon, originally from Sri Lanka but now with an address at Stranmillis Gardens in Belfast, Iqbal, from the Waterside in Coleraine and Dinsmore, from Rosemary Street, Roscrea in Co. Tipperary, all pleaded guilty to conspiring together to assist illegal immigration on 23 November 2012 by taking part in a sham marriage.
O’Neill, from the Bushmills Road in Coleraine, had pleaded guilty to the same charge during an earlier court appearance. Last Monday, prosecution lawyer Neil Connor told the court how officers from the UK border agency had learned of the impending sham marriage and swooped on Coleraine Registry Office as O’Neill and Wijekkoon, were about to say ‘I do’ and arrested the bridal party.
“Officers intercepted those involved before the marriage could proceed,” said the lawyer adding that when the bridal party were separated and questioned, “it became apparent that this was not a legitimate wedding.”
Although the bride and groom claimed they had been living together at O’Neill’s home, Mr Connor said when officers searched it “there was no evidence of any female having resided at that property.”
While O’Neill admitted during police interviews that he knew it was a sham marriage, the other three maintained it was legitimate.
Mr Connor said the “common factor” in the case was a “Mr Ali” who owned a kebab shop in Ballycastle but who was not before the court, as all four had worked for him at one stage. He told the court while the sham wedding “was not a commercial enterprise...it’s right to say that certainly it is the prosecution belief that it was he who organised this.”
Wijekkoon’s defence lawyer Alan Stewart revealed how the Sri Lankan woman is a qualified teacher, is already married in her home country and initially came to Northern Ireland legally to study but that when her visa expired, she did want to return to her homeland and her “abusive” husband.
The daughter of a major in the Sri Lankan army, Mr Stewart claimed it was Mr Ali who suggested the sham marriage to her but that by agreeing to it, “her own name and her family name had been blackened,” adding that she had already paid a heavy price having spent two months in custody before bail was granted.
O’Neill was described by his defence lawyer Francis Rafferty as a “naive simpleton” who despite knowing his impending marriage to Wijekkoon was entirely fake, harboured hopes that they would live together as a married couple.
Lawyers for Dinsmore and Iqbal said neither had gained financially but agreed to take part because of friendships they had with O’Neill and their employer Mr Ali.
Judge McColgan handed Wijekkoon and O’Neill one year jail terms, suspended for two years and six month jail terms, suspended for 18 months to Dinsmore and Iqbal, telling them it was accepted on all sides there were none of the common aggravating factors in such cases.
She said that despite legal guidelines advising that “all but the most minor cases where immigration laws have been flouted call for custodial sentences,” the fact that the bride and groom were not strangers and were marrying to facilitate her remaining in the UK rather than for financial gain, meant they were escaping jail.