Activists on trial for helping migrants enter France

Gap (France) (AFP) –


Three people appeared in a French court Thursday on charges of illegally helping migrants cross the border from Italy in a case that has sparked protests and allegations that prosecutors are punishing a "crime of solidarity".

The trio -- Italian student Eleonora Laterza, 27, Swiss student Bastian Stauffer, 26, and Theo Buckmaster, a 23-year-old Swiss-Belgian -- were detained in April for joining a march of 100 activists escorting some 20 migrants over an Alpine pass.

They were responding to a blockade set up at a nearby pass by several dozen far-right activists from Generation Identitaire (Identity Generation), seeking to keep the migrants out.

It is the latest trial involving activists trying to help migrants on the move through Europe, often in protest at tough new immigration legislation spearheaded by French President Emmanuel Macron.

If convicted on charges of assisting illicit entry into the country as part of an "organised gang", the activists could face up to 10 years in prison, a fine of up to 750,000 euros ($880,000) and could be banned from entering France.

At Thursday's hearing, the court lifted the strict bail conditions imposed on the three, allowing two of them to sit end-of-term exams and the third to return to his job.

The trial was adjourned until November 8 to allow the Constitutional Court time to issue a ruling sought by the defence on whether humanitarian aid to illegal immigrants should be considered a criminal offence.

Earlier this week, around 120 leading French figures in education, science and politics signed an open letter in Le Monde supporting the activists, accusing prosecutors of flouting France's constitutional promise of fraternity and equality for all.

As the hearing opened, several dozen protesters gathered outside the courthouse in the southeastern city of Gap to stage a "reverse trial" against the government.

"We're accusing the state and the government's migrant policies," said Michel Rousseau of the Tous Migrants (We're All Migrants) association.

- Tried for helping -

Their trial comes a day after a 73-year-old Amnesty International volunteer appeared in court in the southern city of Nice on charges of helping two underage Africans illegally enter the country.

A ruling is expected on July 13.

And at least 12 other activists have been fined or given suspended jail terms since 2015 for helping migrants despite police efforts to stem the flow of people arriving from Italy.

One of the most notable cases was that of olive farmer Cedric Herrou who was given a four-month suspended sentence in August for trying to help migrants cross the border near his land.

And this week, the leftist mayor of Grenoble awarded him the city's official medal in honour of his efforts, which he has vowed to continue.

Last month, French lawmakers voted to soften laws criminalising acts of solidarity, exempting those who provide migrants with free food, shelter, medical care or legal advice.

But helping migrants illegally cross the border remains a crime.

- Tougher laws coming -

The government argues that tighter controls are needed to check the rise of anti-immigration populists who claim Europe has allowed in too many people seeking a better life.

The law currently before parliament aims to both cut waiting times for asylum applications -- reducing it from 12 to six months -- and to facilitate the deportation of "economic" migrants whose applications to stay have been rejected.

NGOs have been quick to highlight the discrepancies in the government's approach, contrasting the trial of those helping the migrants with the fast-track recognition of an illegal Malian migrant who rescued a young boy hanging from a balcony in Paris.

"A black person who saves a white person deserves praise, a white person who helps a black person deserves prison," said Giscard Destin, a 23-year-old from Cameroon at a rally to support the three activists in nearby La Roche-de-Rame on Wednesday.