The trial of an Anglican vicar who allegedly married up to 383 couples in sham weddings began at Lewes Crown Court on Friday.
Reverend Alexander Brown, 61, stands accused of knowingly breaching immigration laws, along with Vladymyr Buchak, a 33-year-old illegal immigrant from Ukraine, and Reverend Michael Adelasoye, a 50-year-old evangelical preacher come immigration lawyer.
The Crown Prosecution Service allege Rev. Brown, of St Peter and St Paul church in St Leonards-on-sea, East Sussex, belonged to a criminal gang that organised "massive and systematic immigration fraud". Prosecutor David Walbank told Lewes crown court: "He conducted each of these wedding ceremonies ostensibly according to the rites of the Church of England but knowing full well these were sham marriages not entered into for the proper reasons but as part of an immigration fraud."
The "vast majority" of the marriages were between African nationals, mainly from Nigeria and Rwanda, and "vulnerable" or jobless eastern European migrants who had a right to live in the UK through EU membership. "The European nationals tended to be migrant workers who came to this country in the hope of a better life but found themselves living and working in conditions of real hardship," said Walbank. They were paid up to £3,000 each to participate in sham weddings with Africans who wanted to remain in the UK
Walbank told the jury that only 13 couples wed at Rev. Brown's church in the four years to June 2005 - and all had "Anglo-Saxon" sounding names. "Thereafter, there was a fairly dramatic and obvious increase in the incidence of African and European names appearing in the marriage register," said Walbank. Of the 383 marriages that took place after June 2005, at least 360 of them had eastern European and African names.
"We say that Father Brown cannot have failed to notice that in a markedly high proportion of cases the marriages at St Peter's church involved black Africans marrying white Europeans with names reflecting that. Even allowing for the slightly unusual demographic of St Leonard's, Father Brown cannot have believed that many of these couples genuinely hailed from his parish."
The three defendants have pleaded not guilty to charges of breaching immigration laws. The trial is scheduled to last three weeks.