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PARIS (Reuters) - A British ex-soldier hopes to be cleared of all charges in France after trying to smuggle a small Afghan girl into Britain at her father's request, since French law protects from punishment those who help people in danger, his lawyer said.
Rob Lawrie, a 49-year-old father of four, goes on trial on Thursday in northern France on a charge of aiding illegal immigration at a time of bitter debate across Europe over how to tackle the continent's worst refugee crisis since World War Two.
On Oct. 24, at her father's request, Lawrie hid four-year-old Bahar Ahmadi in his van and set from a French migrant camp for Britain. French border police stopped him, also finding two Eritrean men in the back of the van, and returned Bahar to her father.
"Rob Lawrie has always said, 'I did it and I'm sorry I did it and I wish I hadn't'. Is he not guilty? Not quite," lawyer Lucie Abassade said in an interview on Tuesday. "But French law...says that if you help someone in danger and you're not being paid, by giving them food or shelter or safeguarding their physical integrity, you can't be charged with anything."
"I'm going to say Mr Lawrie did exactly that. He wanted to rescue a little girl, he wanted to save her...by bringing her to her relatives in the UK. That will be our main point (in court) on Thursday."
Lawrie, from Guiseley in northern England, was released after the incident and will return to France for the trial in Boulogne-sur-Mer on the Channel coast, Abassade said.
Lawrie has told Reuters he had felt he must act to help refugees after pictures of drowned Syrian toddler Aylan Kurdi stirred worldwide sympathy in September for Syrians and Afghans fleeing war and poverty.
He closed his carpet-cleaning business and headed to migrant camps in northern France to deliver tents, aid and help build temporary structures for those living there.
Among those he met were Bahar Ahmadi and her father Reza. The little girl followed him around the camp in Calais and he struck up a friendship with her. He refused several times to take the child with him to relatives in Britain until one day he felt he could no longer say no, his lawyer said.
"The child was in a desperate situation, one of imminent danger, it was very cold at the end of October, he wanted to save her life," Abassade said. "It was in the evening, they were gathered around a fire. He thought: what do I do? Do I let her sleep in the cold or do I put her in my truck and bring her to her aunt (in Britain)?"
Britain has declined to admit any migrants from Calais or anywhere else in Europe, saying this would only spur more to stream into the continent, instead taking only some from refugee camps in Middle East countries neighbouring Syria.
If convicted, Lawrie risks as much as five years in jail and a 30,000-euro (£22,544.17 or $32,538.00) fine.
"All this story has been a nightmare for him, the consequences of it have been really hard for him," said Abassade. "So I am positive he is not going to do it again. He is willing to keep helping refugees in a legal way but he is never going to try to help this way ever again because the consequences have been too harsh."
Two online petitions have attracted more than 150,000 signatures asking for leniency for Lawrie.
Writing by Ingrid Melander; Editing by Mark Heinrich