CANTERBURY, England (Reuters) - A Sudanese man who made global headlines in August when he walked 50 km (30 miles) through the Channel Tunnel from France to England, highlighting the plight of migrants, has been granted asylum in Britain.
The case of Abdul Haroun, who has been in prison since he was arrested at the English end of the tunnel on Aug. 4, is one of the most dramatic examples of a country struggling to tackle an influx of refugees largely from war zones such as Syria.
After walking for 12 hours in near total darkness as trains rushed past at speeds of up to 160 km per hour, Haroun was charged with the obscure 19th Century offence of obstructing a railway, which attracts a penalty of up to two years in jail.
Refugee rights campaigners accused authorities of treating Haroun harshly to deter others from following in his footsteps, while tunnel operator Eurotunnel called for “the full force of the law” to be used against him.
Haroun had been due to stand trial this month, but at a brief hearing on Monday at Canterbury Crown Court, in the southeastern county of Kent, prosecutor Philip Bennetts said Haroun had been granted asylum on Dec. 24.
The case was adjourned to Jan. 18 to give the prosecution time to decide whether to continue with the case.
Eurotunnel said the granting of asylum to Haroun would encourage others to seek clandestine ways to enter Britain.
“He not only caused significant disruption to Eurotunnel and to the many freight and passenger customers travelling at the time, he also put his own life and that of others at risk,” the company said in a statement.
Judge Adele Williams granted Haroun immediate bail, ending five months of pre-trial detention that had left his lawyers concerned about his psychological state.
“We’re delighted that it’s reached this point and we’re hoping the case will be thrown out,” said Kate Adams of the non-governmental group Kent Refugee Help, which has supported Haroun in prison and is providing him with a place to live.
“We want him to be happily settled in the UK,” she said.
A spokesman for the Home Office, the government department which oversees the asylum system, declined immediate comment.
Haroun’s high-profile case comes at an awkward time for the government, which is preparing for a referendum on Britain’s membership of the European Union in which the migration crisis is a major issue for voters.
The crisis has divided Britain, as it has other European countries such as Germany and France, between those who want tougher measures to keep migrants out and those who call for greater solidarity with people fleeing war or oppression.
Little is known about Haroun, who was 40 at the time of his arrest according to police. The court heard at an earlier hearing that his mother tongue is Zaghawa, suggesting that he may be from Darfur, a region of Sudan ravaged by more than a decade of conflict between government and rebel forces.
Under the U.N. Refugee Convention, asylum seekers cannot be prosecuted for irregular entry into a country of sanctuary. But legal experts say British authorities sometimes find ways around this by charging them with offences that are not technically protected by convention rights.
“They were over-hasty in bringing a prosecution (against Haroun) before deciding whether he was a refugee,” said lawyer Colin Yeo, a prominent expert on asylum.
editing by Ralph Boulton