BOULOGNE-SUR-MER, France (AP) — A French court convicted a British ex-soldier Thursday of endangerment for trying to spirit a 4-year-old Afghan girl from a squalid migrant camp in Calais to family members in Britain, but dropped a tougher smuggling charge and handed him only a suspended fine.
The conviction appeared to be a symbolic punishment and a victory for Rob Lawrie, who apologized for what he called an "irrational" move. His case epitomized the clash between the heart and the law amid Europe's record-breaking migrant influx.
"The French justice system sent out a message today," he said after the verdict. "When compassion is in the heart, compassion will win."
Cheers erupted in the courtroom from the scores of migrant helpers and others present to support him.
Lawrie avoided a potential prison term and was given a suspended €1,000 ($1,090) fine. That means he doesn't have to pay the money, but it goes on his criminal record in France. He had faced a maximum prison term of five years and a 30,000-euro ($32,000) fine.
Lawrie, a former carpet cleaner and soldier from the Leeds area in England, had been helping migrants as a volunteer when he was caught Oct. 24 by French border police with Bahar Ahmadi tucked away with her teddy bear in a cache in his van.
Just before the trial, Lawrie appeared with the girl in his arms at a news conference in northern France, pleading for understanding.
"What you're looking at here is a waste of life. She's living in a refugee camp," Lawrie told reporters as Bahar smiled timidly for the cameras. "People call it smuggling ... I was rescuing the little girl."
He agreed, however, that his decision was misguided.
"I'm sorry. I regret it and I wouldn't do it again," he said.
Two Eritrean migrants had also slipped into the back of Lawrie's vehicle, but he said he knew nothing about them and police believed him. They weren't part of the case.
Ahmadi had been living with her father in the Calais camp, which is mired in mud and now home to at least 4,200 migrants trying to sneak into Britain. It is the biggest of several migrant camps that have sprung up in northern France.
Prosecutor Jean-Pierre Valensi asked the court to convict Lawrie of endangering the life of another if it didn't retain the more serious smuggling charge.
Citing the police report, he said Lawrie told police about the child in his vehicle 2 1/2 hours after being stopped at the Calais port over the two Eritreans. "He was conscious of the disgraceful conditions," he said to loud boos in the courtroom. "I estimate her life was in danger" in the small closed cache, the prosecutor said.
Bahar and her dad, Reza Ahmadi, were in the courtroom, too.
Asked before the trial how he would react if sent to jail, Lawrie replied: "If I go to jail today ... I will take it on the chin."
Lawrie stresses he took no money to transport Bahar across the English Channel.
"I had told her father 'no' many times," Lawrie said in an interview last week with The Associated Press at his house in Guiseley, 210 miles (335 kilometers) north of London. "But half past 10 one rainy night, when she fell asleep on my knee as I was leaving for the ferry, I just couldn't leave her there anymore. All rational thought left my head."
Lawrie is among hundreds of volunteers helping migrants amid a surge of people fleeing the war in Syria, violence in Afghanistan or poverty in Africa.
Lawrie, with four children of his own, said his passion to help was awakened in September after seeing the photo of 3-year-old Aylan Kurdi washed up on a Turkish beach. He raised funds for migrants, traveled to Calais to help them build up the camp. He became so involved that his wife has since left him.
French authorities are trying to crack down on smuggling and deter immigrants from risking the journey, but critics say they are also targeting migrant helpers.
A retired university lecturer, Claire Marsol, transported two Eritreans in France illegally from the Nice train station to another nearby train station. She was convicted in December by a court in Grasse of aiding their travel and fined 1,500 euros ($1,640).
"They continue to intimidate volunteers," said Rafael Flichman of Cimade, an association that aids migrants.