Aid worker spared jail for trying to smuggle refugee girl (4) into Britain
Published 15/01/2016 | 02:30
A father-of four accused of trying to smuggle a four-year-old Afghan girl from a refugee camp into the UK said he was "ecstatically happy" having being spared jail by a French judge.
Rob Lawrie (49), an aid worker and former soldier, was given a €1,000 fine, suspended for five years, after being found guilty by a court in Boulogne, France, of putting a child's life in danger.
He broke down before the court, packed with supporters, as he described his actions as "completely irrational and stupid".
He said: "I didn't think it through. The whole idea in retrospect makes no sense. It was the fruit of a very tired and irrational mind."
Mr Lawrie, from Guiseley, Leeds, insisted he was only trying to help Bahar Ahmadi, known as Bru, when her father begged him to get her to relatives living in Leeds. He was arrested in Calais in October when border police with sniffer dogs found two Eritreans in his van, whom he said had sneaked in without his knowledge.
It was only when he was handcuffed in custody that he told the authorities to go back to the van and look for the little girl, who was then returned to her father in the camp.
Mr Lawrie had faced the prospect of a five-year jail sentence and a €30,000 fine for aiding illegal immigration but prosecutors chose not to pursue a trafficking charge, recognising that the motive for his rash decision was "humanitarian".
He told judge Louis-Benoît Betermiez that Bru's father, with whom he had formed a close bond, had repeatedly asked him to help get his daughter to Leeds and that he had "constantly" refused.
But one evening, when he was "physically and emotionally drained," the little girl had fallen asleep on his lap and he buckled.
"I could not leave her. I am sorry," he said. "I saw his desperation for a better life for his child. If I had thought it through I would not have done it. In the light of day now, without the emotion, I would not have done it."
He insisted that Bru's safety had been "paramount" and that he did not put her in the boot but in a "factory-fitted" bed above the driving compartment with mattress and pillows.
He rejected the idea that he was trafficking for money, telling the judge: "Her father is a farmer from Afghanistan. He doesn't have any money whatsoever.
"I have not only raised many thousands of pounds - I have put thousands of my own money into this. There is no way I would ever do this for money."
There were loud boos and hisses in court when prosecutor Jean-Pierre Valensi described the conditions in which the child was hidden as "undignified" because she could not get out.
Lucille Abassade, defending, argued that the compartment could be opened and the girl's life was not in danger. She said a child could not be considered an illegal immigrant under law.
Mr Lawrie had earlier explained how he had closed his carpet cleaning business, sold the family car and travelled to Calais after being moved by the plight of Alan Kurdi, the toddler washed up on the beach in Turkey in September.
He spent £8,000 of own money on helping migrants at the squalid "jungle" camp.
The former soldier, who served with the British Army's Royal Corps of Transport in Germany for seven years in the 1980s, said the case had "cost him everything".
His second wife, whom he admitted he did not consult about his decision to go to Calais, had subsequently left him, taking with her their four children aged between seven and 14, and he has been left on the edge of bankruptcy.
The court heard how Mr Lawrie, who has bipolar disorder, was raised in a children's home and had attempted suicide three times - most recently in November, following his prosecution and the family breakdown.
Mr Betermiez said the conviction should act as a "warning" and that Mr Lawrie might be jailed if he commits another offence in France within 12 months. But a jubilant Mr Lawrie said afterwards: "Thank you to France for realising compassion is not a crime and compassion was in the dock today."