British man avoids jail for trying to smuggle Afghan girl out of France

Ex-soldier Rob Lawrie arrives a news conference carrying Afghan girl Bahar Ahmadi, known as Bru.
Ex-soldier Rob Lawrie arrives a news conference carrying Afghan girl Bahar Ahmadi, known as Bru.PHOTO: REUTERS

BOULOGNE-SUR-MER, France (REUTERS) - A former British soldier who tried to smuggle a four-year-old Afghan girl into Britain at her father's request was on Thursday cleared of all charges related to aiding illegal immigration.

A French court gave 49-year-old Rob Lawrie only a suspended €1,000 (S$1,500) fine on a charge of putting the child's life in danger - by transporting her in a storage compartment of his van rather than on a child seat with a seatbelt.

Lawrie, an unemployed father of four, had befriended the girl and her father in a squalid migrant camp in northern France.

"Compassion was in the dock today and France sent out a message that compassion will win," he told reporters after the trial.

Lawrie could have faced up to five years in jail and a €30,000 fine for aiding illegal immigration, in a case that went to the heart of Europe's dilemma over how to deal with its worst refugee crisis since World War II.

But the judge said that considering the circumstances of the case, it was enough to give Lawrie a warning with the suspended sentence. He will not have to pay the fine unless he commits another offence in France.

A tearful Lawrie told the court he had acted on the spur of the moment, finally relenting after repeatedly refusing her father's requests that he take Bahar Ahmadi, known as Bru, to relatives just a few miles from his own home in northern England.

"It was very cold... the little girl, she fell asleep on my knees, and I couldn't leave her. I'm sorry," he said, adding that he knew it was wrong and regretted doing it.

Lawrie had been a volunteer helper in the makeshift migrants' camp in Calais known as "the jungle" where Bru and her father lived.

There are around 4,000 migrants at the unofficial camp, which rain often turns into a quagmire. Most want to get to Britain, trying night after night to jump onto trucks or trains or even walk the 50km undersea tunnel to Britain. At least 16 have died in the attempt.

Britain and France have jointly tightened security around the harbour and railway lines over the past months, but the camp remains.

On Oct 24, Lawrie had set off in his van with Bru hidden in a compartment over the driver's seat, but French police caught him and returned Bahar to her father in the camp.

Police also found two Eritrean men in the back of the vehicle. Lawrie said he had been unaware of their presence and authorities did not press charges.