PARIS (Reuters) - A French court sentenced a man on Tuesday to three years in jail for helping a 14-year-old girl who wanted to travel to Syria to marry an Islamic State fighter there.
The sentencing underscored how French authorities are cracking down not only on volunteer jihadists trying to join militant groups in Syria and Iraq but also on supporters who help them to leave France.
Riad Ben Cheikh, 41, a crane operator who has three children and whose Facebook account flags his support for Islamic State, denied during his trial that he wanted to wage 'jihad' or holy war but said he merely wanted to help a "brother in religion".
The "brother", based in the Syrian city of Raqqa and calling himself 'Tony Toxico', had contacted Ben Cheikh via Facebook and had asked for his help in getting the girl to Syria. Ben Cheikh said he had not known her true age.
"In hindsight, I never should have done him this favor," said Ben Cheikh, who admitted having partly paid for the girl's hotel room in the French city of Lyon and her car trip to the airport where French police arrested her.
The Paris court found Ben Cheikh guilty of participating in a conspiracy to commit terrorist acts and abduction of a minor. He was sentenced to three years in jail, one year of which is a suspended sentence.
"We avoided the inflation (in jail sentences) that we were worried about in the current climate," said his lawyer, Archibald Celeyron.
The girl's whereabouts are currently unknown. After a first attempted escape, the prosecutor said she had gone to Belgium where she met another jihadist and became pregnant.
She was then arrested and committed to a shelter in France, from which she again escaped. The girl may have reached Syria by now, added prosecutor Camille Hennetier.
Compared to European peers, French judges have handed down relatively heavy sentences to volunteer jihadists. They include a seven-year jail sentence for a Frenchman who spent just 10 days with a fighting group in Syria.
France is a top Western source country for jihadi volunteers and more than 100 have returned home after fighting in Syria and Iraq. Their lawyers say excessively heavy sentences risk creating hardened criminals determined to carry out attacks.
(Reporting By Chine Labbé; Writing by Nicholas Vinocur; Editing by Gareth Jones)