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.
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.
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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.
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.’
Persecuted in his homeland? Never, says his African boss
When Nathan Ntege arrived in London from Uganda in 1996, he immediately claimed asylum – and his claims of persecution in Uganda was soon accepted.
A succession of job offers followed from the Church of England – despite his difficulties completing official paperwork – because, it seems, the clergy were keen to hire more Africans.
But for Ntege’s old boss at the Church of Uganda, Bishop Samuel Ssekkadde, tales of his hardship and persecution in Uganda come as something of a surprise.
According to him, the vicar – embroiled in a huge investigation into a bogus wedding sham – enjoyed comfortable lodging attached to his church in the capital Kampala, was paid a salary far above the national average and was far from persecuted.
The bishop laughed at the notion of Ntege being persecuted by the Church of Uganda, saying he was bemused why Britain granted him asylum. And he claims Ntege paid repeated visits to Uganda after fleeing to Britain.
Speaking at his large villa on the shores of Lake Victoria, on a road named after himself, Bishop Ssekkadde told the Daily Mail: ‘I don’t think he was facing any persecution. There are so many people who have left and claimed they are being persecuted – and they are not. There is no persecution around the Church of Uganda.
‘And there was no political persecution in Uganda in 1996. I don’t know whether Ntege belonged to the opposition because we are apolitical in the church, we don’t belong to political parties. But I have no memory of him campaigning for anything.’
We cannot know whether the bishop knew Ntege’s full background, but after moving to the UK, the controversial vicar brought his wife Elizabeth, 49, and four children to join him.
A spokesman for the Diocese of Southwark said it had received a ‘a letter of introduction and recommendation from the Archbishop of Uganda’ for Ntege, and that he had been ‘granted overseas permission to serve as a priest in 2001’. According to prosecutors, the Mercedes-driving vicar, 54, somehow managed to amass as much as £500,000, more than £50,000 of which he wired back to his homeland.
At the same time, he presided over an astronomical surge in a weddings at his South London church – from a handful of year to an amazing nine a day – mostly between Africans and European Union citizens, who have the right for themselves, and their spouses, to live in Britain. It is that extraordinary increase in the number of weddings which led Border Officials to mount a huge investigation into what they believed to be Ntege’s involvement in one of the UK’s biggest marriage scams.
Bishop Ssekkadde said that had the Church of England bothered to contact him for a reference, he would have told them to steer clear of Ntege, adding that the vicar left in disgrace after ‘abandoning’ his bewildered flock without warning for the ‘green pastures’ of England.
‘In 1996, Ntege said he had been invited to London for a two-week conference – and didn’t come back,’ the bishop said. ‘When you are ordained you are married to the diocese, and you cannot just desert it. If a vicar has deserted his flock you cannot employ him. The next thing I heard was that he had been employed by the Church of England. But I never received a single ring from London – and now a noise is being raised about him.’
He added: ‘If the Church of England employed him to get more Africans into church, that is not ecclesiastical.’ And speaking of the popularity of bogus marriages to win citizenship in England, Bishop Ssekkadde said: ‘That is a sin.’
Ntege was born a couple of hours north of Kampala in the ramshackle and dusty town of Luwero.
He was sent to lodge with a family friend in the capital while going to school there. He lived in a sparsely decorated, shabby tin-roofed bungalow next door to the woman he went on to marry in Kampala’s Namirembe cathedral, Elizabeth Samwezi.
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