A LEEDS aid worker has been spared jail by a court in France for trying to smuggle an Afghan girl into Britain.
Former soldier Rob Lawrie, 49, feared being imprisoned for up to five years and had appealed for clemency after admitting trying to get four-year-old Bahar Ahmadi - known as Bru - into the UK hidden in his van in October.
In a packed hearing at the Tribunal Grande Instance in Boulogne on Thursday, Mr Lawrie told how his business had failed, his marriage had broken down and he had tried to kill himself since his arrest.
He said he had acted stupidly in hiding Bru in a sleeping compartment but had simply been trying to take her from The Jungle refugee camp to family members already living legally near him in the UK.
Judge Louis-Benoit Betermiez ordered the father-of-four from Guiseley to pay a fine of 1,000 euros (£750) for endangering the child’s life but suspended it for five years as long as Mr Lawrie commits no further crime in France.
There was a huge round of applause from his supporters as he broke down in tears in court.
Speaking outside the courtroom, Mr Lawrie said: “Compassion has been in the dock here. France has sent out a message that when compassion is done from the heart, not to make money, not to benefit from it but when it is done really from the heart, France has sent out a message that compassion will win.”
He added that he had had a heavy weight on his shoulders but now felt “light”.
Mr Lawrie said he would continue fighting to get help for child refugees.
He said: “I’m going to have a few days off and then I’m going to raise the profile (of refugees) even more because we cannot simply leave these children ... We need to get these children now and into our education system because these guys are going to be doctors and lawyers and teachers if we get them now and educate them correctly.
“Or we can leave them in The Jungle to rot and die of cold.”
Before the hearing, at a packed press conference in the French seaside town, Mr Lawrie had apepared with Bru in his lap and said he was scared of being made an example of by the authority.
He told reporters: “They see the media attention I have been getting and I think it could go one of two ways.
“France has an opportunity to show, as I know they are, a compassionate country. But they also have an opportunity to say we are now allowing this to happen and we are sending a message to all the well-intentioned volunteers.”
He added that he regretted his actions and would not do it again.
Asked what his advice would be to others thinking of copying, he added: “Don’t do it. On a personal level it will ruin your life.”
Mr Lawrie was stopped in Calais as he returned home in October. The former Army physical training instructor said he was helping build shelters in The Jungle camp when he got to know Bru ,and her father asked him to help get her to close family members living legally in Leeds.
He was caught when British sniffer dogs found two Eritrean men who, unbeknown to him, had also stowed in the back of his van.
Mr Lawrie said he was not a hero but simply “an unemployed carpet cleaner from Leeds” who wanted to help and had never been in trouble before.
He likened the plight of refugees to the civil rights movement in the US in the 1950s and 1960s.
He said: “We will look back on modern history and say oh my God, we let kids live in refugee camps and not go to school. We will look back and see it like the civil rights movement in the US.”
He told reporters his actions had left him penniless and on the edge of bankruptcy after giving up to £8,000 of his own money as well as collecting donations for the refugees.
French police arrested Mr Lawrie over the stowaways and it was only when he was handcuffed in custody that he had to tell the authorities to go back to the van and look for Bru.
Earlier this week he explained how French police appeared to believe his story when they took Bru into the detention centre and she ran over to give him a cuddle.
The former Royal Corps of Transport soldier has previously described his actions in October as a “moment of madness”, but hopes the court will see that he “just tried to help a little girl”.
Fellow refugee volunteer Jim Innes, who got to know Mr Lawrie through Facebook, started a UK petition on his behalf which gained more than 52,000 signatures asking the Government to intercede and was delivered to the Foreign Office last week.
A second petition open to people outside the UK has been signed by around 116,000 people.
Mr Lawrie later arrived in a scrum of cameras at Boulogne’s tribunal grande instance court minutes after Bru and family members arrived.
He posed for photos and thanked supporters before heading inside.
Mr Lawrie told the court he had acted stupidly and irrationally in hiding Bru in the sleeping compartment.
He said he had crossed between France and the UK many times previously while helping refugees and had refused her father’s pleas to take her to Britain many times.
But via an interpreter he told the judge: “Each time I saw the little girl and her father in the work that I was doing. That night I just could not leave her there any more. It was wrong. It was the most stupid conceived plan.”
Mr Lawrie 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.
“She is four years old with a family who live near me and I had bonded with them. She was sleeping in a tent and she is a very clever girl.”
He added that Bru had been “warm and safe” where she was hidden.
He said he had started raising money and travelling to the Jungle with aid after seeing the images of three-year-old Syrian refugee Alan Kurdi, who drowned in the Mediterranean in September.