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French court rules compassionately in refugee smuggling case

French court rules compassionately in refugee smuggling case
Robert Lawrie speaks to journalists as he leaves the courtroom after his trial in Boulogne-sur-Mer, France. (Denis Charlet / AFP/Getty Images)

He said it was an act of compassion. But should that excuse the crime?

A French court on Thursday essentially said yes, giving Rob Lawrie what amounted to a slap on the wrist for trying to smuggle a 4-year-old Afghan refugee out of a squalid settlement in France.

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The court threw out the attempted smuggling accusation against the 49-year-old British former soldier. It imposed a fine for endangering the girl's life but said he didn't have to pay it.

"I'm ecstatically happy," Lawrie said as he left the courthouse surrounded by supporters and journalists. "Thank you, France. Compassion was in the dock today and compassion won."

In a case that garnered him international support, Lawrie had admitted hiding the girl — Bahar Ahmadi, but known to everyone as Bru — in his van near the French port city of Calais with the intention of bringing her to England.

She was among thousands of refugees living in a shantytown near Calais known as the Jungle, where Lawrie had been working as a volunteer. Her father, Reza Ahmadi, had begged him many times to take her to Leeds in northern England, where relatives had settled legally.

Lawrie had always said no — until one chilly night last October when they were all sitting around a campfire.

With the girl asleep on his knee, Lawrie said, he made an "ill-thought-out, irrational and stupid decision" to help her escape to what he felt would be a better life.

"She's 4 years old," Lawrie explained to the court. "She has a family who live near me and I bonded with her. It was a very cold night and she had fallen asleep on my knee. I could not leave her there in a tent."

Bahar's father placed her in a sleeping compartment above the driver's seat in the van while Lawrie returned to the family tent to grab her teddy bear.

They were headed to the ferry terminal to cross the English Channel when border police stopped the van and found two Eritreans who had stowed away, apparently without Lawrie's knowledge. Questioned by French police, he confessed that Bahar was hidden in the van too.

Lawrie told the court that he regretted his decision, but that it highlighted the plight of young refugees in the camps.

"These children are in so much trouble, basically because they lost the birth lottery," he said. "Although I did something wrong and I'm truly sorry, I feel these children need help."

Lawrie said he had become attached to the girl, who followed him around the camp as he tried to enlist help from refugees to build shelters he had designed.

He originally faced one accusation — "assisting in the illegal movement of a foreigner" — and could have been sentenced to up to five years in prison if convicted.

In a surprise move Thursday, public prosecutor Jean-Pierre Valensi asked the court to also convict him of endangering the girl's life.

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When Valensi suggested Lawrie could have helped her without breaking the law, boos and jeers erupted from Lawrie's supporters, around 100 of whom had gathered in court.

Although Lawrie was convicted of the new charge, which came with a nearly $1,100 fine, the three-judge panel ruled that he would have to pay it only if he found himself accused of a crime in France in the next five years.

Lawrie, who served for seven years as a soldier with the Royal Corps of Transport, said afterward that he would return to the Jungle.

"I'm not going back today, but I will," he said. "We cannot leave these children in these camps. We either get them into our education system and have the teachers, doctors and lawyers of tomorrow or we leave them in the Jungle to rot and die of cold. I will carry on fighting for these children."

Willsher is a special correspondent.

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