French court convicts man in migrant girl case; no jail

Elaine Ganley
Associated Press

Boulogne-Sur-Mer, France – — A British man who risked being convicted as a smuggler prevailed in court Thursday, convincing judges that he acted with his heart when he tried to deliver a 4-year-old Afghan girl from a squalid migrant camp in France to family members in Britain.

The three-judge panel threw out the smuggling charge — which carried a penalty of up to five years in prison — convicting him instead of the far less grievous crime of endangerment and suspended the 1000-euro ($1,090) fine.

The court room erupted in cheers at the verdict.

Rob Lawrie, 49, a former soldier and carpet cleaner from Leeds, had been helping migrants as a volunteer when he was caught Oct. 24 by French border police with Bahar Ahmadi tucked away with her teddy bear in a cache in his van. He has since gained a fan club on Facebook and among volunteers like himself who are helping refugees and other migrants.

“The French justice system sent out a message today,” he said after the verdict. “When compassion is in the heart, compassion will win.”

The court cited his “personality” in its decision and said the far less serious conviction served as a “warning.”

Lawrie reiterated numerous times during the three-hour trial that his actions were “irrational” and “very stupid” and guided by fatigue and emotions. But he stressed the plight of migrants cast away in the camps in northern France.

He will not have to pay the fine, but it goes on his criminal record in France. He had faced a maximum prison term of five years and a 30,000-euro ($32,000) fine.

Just before the trial, Lawrie appeared with the girl in his arms at a news conference in northern France, pleading for understanding.

“What you’re looking at here is a waste of life. She’s living in a refugee camp,” Lawrie told reporters as Bahar smiled timidly for the cameras. “People call it smuggling … I was rescuing the little girl.”

He agreed, however, that his decision was misguided.

“I’m sorry. I regret it and I wouldn’t do it again,” he said.

Ahmadi had been living with her father in the Calais camp, which is mired in mud and now home to at least 4,200 migrants trying to sneak into Britain. It is the biggest of several migrant camps that have sprung up in northern France.

Prosecutor Jean-Pierre Valensi asked the court to convict Lawrie of endangering the life of another if it didn’t retain the more serious smuggling charge.

Citing the police report, he said Lawrie told police about the child in his vehicle 2 1/2 hours after being stopped at the Calais port over the two Eritreans. “He was conscious of the disgraceful conditions,” he said to loud boos in the courtroom. “I estimate her life was in danger” in the small closed cache, the prosecutor said.

Lawrie stressed he took no mone y to transport Bahar.

Lawrie is among hundreds of volunteers helping migrants amid a surge of people fleeing the war in Syria, violence in Afghanistan or poverty in Africa.

French authorities are trying to crack down on smuggling and deter immigrants from risking the journey, but critics say they are also targeting migrant helpers.