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Thornton Heath vicar presided over 'conveyor belt' of up to nine sham marriages a day, court hears

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A VICAR in Thornton Heath presided over a "conveyor belt" of sham marriages where brides queued for up to nine weddings a day, a court has heard.

Reverend Nathan Ntege, 55, is accused of conducting 492 ceremonies over a 15-month period at the Church of St Jude's and St Aidan's in Thornton Road.

The court heard that Ntege was the "lynchpin" of a group responsible for abuse of the immigration system on an "industrial scale". 

Couples would wait their turn at the back of the church as brides changed into their wedding dresses in the garden, sometimes even sharing the same dress, Inner London Crown Court was told.

One woman could barely fit into her gown and the jury was shown wedding snaps of her underwear bulging out, it is said.

Ntege, originally from Uganda but now living in Croydon, also pocketed around £70,000 in wedding fees owed to the Diocese of Southwark, it is said.

He allegedly helped hundreds of illegal immigrants get into the country by marrying them to EU nationals in illegal ceremonies at the "no questions asked" church.

Church verger Brian Miller, 81, and secretary Maudlyn Riviere, 67, are accused of taking part in the scam by organising the weddings and recording bogus details on the marriage certificates.

Galina Petkova, 51, and Georgia Forteath, 34, were both married in the ceremonies themselves, acted as 'fixers' and helped the illegal immigrants to lie on their application forms, it is claimed.

Innocent Odoh, 34, and Angela Pelachie, 54, also came into the country under false marriages but were arrested after immigration officers became suspicious of their circumstances, it is said.

Odoh did not know his wife's birthday, the names and ages of her children or where she lived, the court heard.

Prosecutor Edward Lucas said immigration officers became suspicious about the number of weddings at the church, which rocketed from six a year to six a day and with nine booked for the same date on one occasion.

"Attention was drawn to this parish church due to the inordinate number of weddings taking place at the church, presided over in the most part by Rev Ntege," he said.

"The Crown asserts that many of these weddings were bogus or sham.

"There were of course some legitimate weddings, it would have been more of a surprise if there were not.

"The weddings were neither conducted correctly or legally and their sole purpose was to facilitate industrial scale abuse of the system of immigration control in the UK.

"Many involved European Economic Area (EEA) nationals marrying non-EEA nationals, the latter had either no leave at all to be in the UK, no legal status or whose leave had expired or was about to expire.

"They were mainly Bulgarian nationals sourced by the fixers.

"The non-EEA citizens could seek to stay in the UK as the spouse of a national.

"The number of marriages cannot have taken place at this single church by coincidence.

"Persons wishing to go through with these bogus or sham marriages were introduced specifically to this church because it was a no questions asked church.

"The Rev Ntege was integral to this process because without him there would have been no weddings at the church.

"He was the lynchpin, a vital part of this enterprise, he conducted the marriages in full knowledge of the fact that they were bogus."

Ntege also pocketed more than £69,000 in wedding fees as most of the ceremonies were paid for in cash, it is said.

"It's more than just a coincidence that during the same period he transferred £55,560 to Uganda," Mr Lucas told the jury.

On one occasion there were nine weddings booked for one day and brides would queue out the door waiting for their turn, the court heard.

Women would change in and out of their wedding dresses in the church or garden outside and couples had never met each other before the big day, it is said.

"The weddings themselves were somewhat farcical," Mr Lucas said.

"Brides would share the same wedding dressed and queue up at the back of the church, waiting to be married.

"One witness said that he often saw women getting changed into dresses inside the church or in the church garden.

"False addresses were routinely recorded and weddings were conducted with few or no guests," Mr Lucas said.

"They were processed by Ntege and his team like a conveyor belt.

"It was a complete sham and they knew it."

Miller was present at a number of the bogus weddings to 'give them some legitimacy' Mr Lucas told the court.

"He knew full well that the weddings were entirely bogus," he added.

"Mr Miller was to say that the marriages were 'technically correct but morally bankrupt'.

"He knew that these marriages were for convenience and that their sole purpose was to obtain status for non-EEA nationals in the UK.

"Riviere was the church secretary and had a key role in liaising with participants, collecting cash and recording entirely bogus details on the certificates.

"She was also present at many of the weddings.

'She and Miller were part of a team processing and run it an inordinate number of sham marriages."

Petkova and Forteath acted as fixers sourcing foreign nationals and lying on immigration application forms, it is claimed.

"They helped arrange the weddings and maintain genuine marriage on the forms,' Mr Lucas said.

"They both appear on marriage certificates in ceremonies at St Jude's.

"Their role was pivotal because without them there would be no non-EEA citizens."

He added: "The individuals involved were totally unknown to each other prior to the weddings.

"This was wide-spread abuse of the system of immigration control of illegal foreign nationals in the UK."

Ntege and his gang continued to carry out the conspiracy even after warnings from the Archdeacon of Southwark and immigration officers, the court heard.

"There can be no doubt that Ntege, Miller and Riviere were aware of the concerns about the numbers of marriages with foreign nationals taking place at St Jude's," Mr Lucas said.

"They knew these were not marriages of love but of convenience and whose only purpose was for one of the participants to remain in the UK."

The charges follow an investigation by the UK Border Agency's (UKBA) South London Criminal and Financial Investigation Unit.

Ntege was originally arrested on suspicion of conducting sham marriages on June 4, 2011.

The church was searched as part of the investigation, the Diocese of Southwark and Church of England were informed and Miller was arrested on November 17.

Ntege, of Dunheaved Road North, Thornton Heath, Croydon, denies 14 charges of commissioning a breach of UK immigration law and one of fraud by abuse of position between 15 January 2007 and 31 May 2011.

Riviere, of Lucerne Road, Thornton Heath, Croydon, faces 15 charges of commissioning a breach of UK immigration law.

Miller, of Owl Close, South Croydon, denies seven charges of commissioning a breach of UK immigration law.

Petkova, of Shrubbery Road, Enfield, North London, denies seven of the same charges.

Forteath, of South Norwood, faces two charges of commissioning a breach of UK immigration law.

Pelachie, of Florida Road, Croydon, denies one count of commissioning a breach of UK immigration law and another of deception in relation to UK immigration law between 20 April 2010 and 10 January 2011.

Odoh, of Brownhill Road, Lewisham, southeast London, faces a charge of commissioning a breach of UK immigration law and another of deception in relation to UK immigration law between 18 May 2011 and 29 February 2012. 

The trial continues. 

Thornton Heath vicar presided over 'conveyor belt' of up to nine sham marriages a day, court hears


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