Martine Landry said she did nothing wrong. In fact, the 73-year-old human rights activist said she would do it again. “I’m going to continue,” Landry told Al Jazeera in a telephone interview from Menton, a town in southeastern France near the border with Italy. “I know I’m within my rights and I want to assert my rights.”
But Landry said those rights were put in question during an incident last July. According to the activist, she was standing on the French side of the Menton-Vintimille border crossing between France and Italy when she witnessed Italian police forcibly return two young men to French territory.
She said she took that to indicate the pair were minors who had been in France before setting foot in Italy, which means “it’s up to the French to take care of their protection”. She waited for the teenagers – whom she later learned were both 15-year-old Guinean asylum seekers – to cross into France and then walked them to a border police station nearby, she said. There, she said, she helped the children deliver a written document requesting they be placed in the custody of France’s child welfare agency, which is where they remain. Under French law, the agency is required to take underage, foreign nationals who enter France unaccompanied into its care, Landry said. “The police is obliged [to do that] because it’s the law,” she added. “There is absolutely nothing illegal in that.” But Landry, who works with the French branch of Amnesty International and Anafe, a group that provides assistance to foreign nationals at French borders, now faces criminal charges for her actions.
She is accused of “having aided the entry of two foreign minors in an irregular situation”, Amnesty said last month, a criminal charge that comes with a maximum five-year prison term and 30,000 euro (about $37,000) fine. “I didn’t facilitate [their] entry, I didn’t cross the border with them,” she said. “I simply brought them to the police station, which is what I was meant to do.” Her next court hearing is set for Wednesday in Nice.
Landry’s case is “emblematic” of a wider crackdown aimed at preventing French citizens from helping asylum seekers, said Laure Palun, general coordinator of Anafe, the organisation that helps foreigners arriving at France’s borders. In the area of Menton, in France’s Provence-Alpes-Cote d’Azur region, at least a dozen people have been charged for aiding asylum seekers and minors, while another 40 people have been charged in the French Alps, Palun told Al Jazeera. “Instead of respecting its own legislation … the state’s response is to intimidate and put pressure on activists and those who are acting to defend human rights,” she said.