The Roya valley, an important region for migrants travelling from Italy to France Photo: Mehdi Chebil
The Roya valley, an important region for migrants travelling from Italy to France Photo: Mehdi Chebil

A trio of foreign activists appeared in French court on Thursday for illegally assisting a group of migrants trying to cross into France from Italy. French society is divided over the crackdown on activists trying to help migrants on the move.

The three activists on trial included two students, Eleonora Laterza, 27 from Italy, and Swiss Bastian Stauffer 26 as well as Theo Buckmaster, a 23-year old Swiss-Belgian, AFP reported. The group was detained in April after they joined a rally of 100 activists who escorted 20 migrants over an Alpine pass between France and Italy. The rally was a response to a blockade set up by French Right Wing group Generation Identitaire (Identity Generation) which aimed to keep the migrants away from the French border.

The three activists, if to be convicted on the charge of facilitating entry of these migrants as members of an "organized gang" to France, could face a charge of 750,000 euros ($880.000), up to ten years in prison and also be banned from entering French territory. 

The trial was adjourned Thursday which will give the Constitutional Court time to issue a ruling on whether activists aiming to assist illegal migrants enter France should be considered a criminal offence. A new trial will be set on November 8.

Previous cases

The trial is the latest in a series of criminal charges against activists who assist migrants, the most famous of which being Cedric Herrou, a French olive farmer who was arrested in August 2016 for transporting eight migrants in his van across the French-Italian border. In February 2017, Herrou was fined 3000 euros by a trial court in Nice. Despite the charges, Herrou has continued to help migrants on his farm at the French-Italian border and has become a hero among activists.

On Wednesday, a 73-year old Amnesty International volunteer appeared before the court in Nice for helping two underage Africans come to France. On July 13, the court will issue a verdict regarding the case. "Acts of solidarity should be promoted, not punished," Amnesty International's senior campaigner on migration, Maria Serrano said in response.  

Not in line with French values

The French public has been divided over the crackdowns by the French government on these activists. While the French government believes that stricter controls are necessary to counter the rise of anti-immigration populists, some prominent individuals in France believe it compromises French values.  

Earlier this week 120 French leaders in the fields of education, science and politics signed an open letter in the Le Monde newspaper arguing that France's legal system is abandoning its constitutional ideals of fraternity and equality for all by prosecuting these activists.


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