11:23, January 10 348 0 theguardian.com

2018-01-10 11:23:03
Spanish activist in Moroccan court over people smuggling charge

A Spanish journalist and human rights activist who is thought to have saved hundreds of lives by alerting maritime authorities to the plight of vulnerable migrants in the Mediterranean has appeared in court in Morocco over allegations that she has been colluding with people traffickers.

Helena Maleno and her Walking Borders NGO have, over the past few years, fielded distress calls from people crossing from North Africa, passing on their details and locations to the Spanish coastguard so that they can be rescued.

On Wednesday, following an adjournment last month, Maleno, who has been based in Morocco for 15 years, appeared in a court in Tangier to give evidence. After testifying for almost two hours, she was told to return on 31 January when the judge will question her over the material submitted by her lawyers. She has repeatedly insisted that trying to save the lives of people crossing the Mediterranean is not a crime.

Spanish police began an investigation into Maleno’s activities in 2012 but the case against her was shelved by the country’s high court in April last year on the grounds that her actions did not constitute a criminal offence. Maleno says Spanish police have passed their investigation on to the Moroccan authorities who, she claims, have tapped her phones.

“I’m out of court,” she tweeted on Wednesday afternoon. “I’ve testified and the judge has recognised my work as ‘humanitarian labour’ and noted that the accusation is blatantly from the [Central Unit of the Network for Illegal Immigration and False Documents] of the Spanish National Police.”

Maleno said in December that there was no logic to the proceedings as both the Spanish and Moroccan police had acknowledged that she had never profited at any time despite being accused of being a people trafficker.

Maleno is being supported by NGOs and politicians. The Spanish branch of Doctors of the World tweeted: “People like Helena Maleno dignify this world by saving lives. Her commitment to defending human rights helps us keep our faith in humanity.”

Maribel Mora, a Podemos senator, tweeted: “All those of us who want a more just society where the respect for human rights is guaranteed, must today defend [Helena Maleno]. No person is illegal and defending human dignity can never be a crime.”

The anti-austerity party is planning to petition King Felipe of Spain to intervene in the case.

“We want to ask the king of Spain – who, as we know, gets on well with the Moroccan authorities – to step in or show some concerns so that Helena can get back to her daily work as an activist,” a Podemos MP told the online newspaper eldiario.es.

More than 200 prominent Spanish figures – including the actors Javier Bardem and Eduardo Noriega – have also signed a petition in support of Maleno.

Speaking in December, Maleno said: “I am calm and I am strong because I know that all I have done is defend the right to life of people who cross borders … I want to thank all those people in Spain and around the world who have supported me in these complicated and difficult days.”

The case had drawn parallels with the measures faced by human rights activists working to help migrants and refugees elsewhere in Europe.

Last February, a French farmer who helped African migrants cross the border from Italy and provided them with shelter, was given a suspended €3,000 (£2,660) fine for aiding illegal arrivals.

In August last year, Italian police seized a rescue ship operated by German NGO Jugend Rettet as part of an Italian attempt to end the Mediterranean migrant and refugee crisis.

According to the International Organisation for Migration, 21,468 migrants and refugees arrived in Spain by sea in 2017, with 223 people dying as they made the crossing. The number of arrivals had more than tripled on the previous year, when 6,046 people reached Spain and 128 people died on route.