DAKAR (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - A Spanish activist who alerts coastguards to migrants drowning at sea appeared in court in Morocco this week and could face trial for human trafficking, her lawyer and colleague said, as celebrities rallied to support her.
Working with the charity Walking Borders, Helena Maleno helps to rescue boats stranded in the Mediterranean by alerting naval authorities.
“Helena is responsible for saving the lives of thousands of migrants,” Gema Fernandez, one of her lawyers, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
“We are hopeful that this investigation will end soon and that she will be able to continue with her human rights and humanitarian work that is so important,” said Fernandez of Women’s Link Worldwide, another group that Maleno works for.
At least 45 humanitarians have been prosecuted under anti-smuggling or immigration laws in Europe over the last two years amid growing hostility toward those who work with migrants, according to the London-based Institute of Race Relations.
More than 200 Spanish writers, musicians and celebrities, including Oscar-winning actor Javier Bardem, have signed a petition condemning the investigation.
“We share the principles of defending a right to life at the borders and we reject the harassment and criminalisation of Helena’s work,” it said.
Maleno appeared in court in Tangier on Wednesday to defend herself against allegations of human trafficking brought by Spanish and Moroccan authorities, Women’s Link Worldwide said.
She is due to appear in court again on Jan. 31. If the case moves forward, she could be formally charged and stand trial, Fernandez said.
“I hold onto the solidarity that you offer me on the other side of the border, but above all the example of the brave migrant communities,” Maleno tweeted after testifying.
More than 3,000 migrants died attempting to cross the Mediterranean in 2017, the fourth straight year that the death toll has topped this figure, according to the U.N. Migration Agency (IOM).
Most migrants attempting to reach Europe from Africa take the sea route from Libya to Italy, but last year saw a spike in the number of people departing from Morocco to Spain instead.
“It is appalling that Helena is being put through this,” said Viviana Waisman, head of Women’s Link Worldwide.
“It is a clear criminalisation of human rights defenders and one more step in the criminalisation of migrant people.”
Reporting by Nellie Peyton. Editing by Katy Migiro.; Please credit Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, property rights, and climate change. Visit www.trust.org