A French court has sentenced an imam to two years of jail for providing migrants with inflatable boats to reach Great Britain through the English Channel.
The man, a 39-year old political refugee from Iran, fainted as the criminal court announced on Monday his immediate incarceration. Another 29-year old Senegalese man who attended the Mosque where the imam preached was also sentenced to 18 months in prison.
The two were also banned from living in or visiting Nord and Pas-de-Calais, for five and three years respectively.
The news comes as more than 70 people were intercepted on Saturday as they attempted to cross the English Channel from France to Great Britain. British Home Secretary Sajid Javid has called the phenomenon, which has seen 140 migrants cross the Channel in April 2019 alone, "deeply concerning".
These crossings are illegal under the current Dublin Regulations — the European Union laws regulating unauthorised migrants in the EU. "It is an established principle that those in need of protection should claim asylum in the first safe country they reach," said Javid. "Since January more than 30 people who arrived illegally in the UK in small boats have been returned to Europe".
The imam, who was not identified by French media, was traced after police found life jackets, wet pullovers, and a rubber dinghy on a beach in Pas-de-Calais, in northern France. The dinghy's registration number allowed investigators to find its former owner, who told the police he had sold it to a man a few days earlier.
Telephone records and stakeouts led to the identification of the Iranian imam, who preached at a Mosque in Petit-Couronne, close to the north-western French city of Rouen. At his house, the police found two more boats, three engines and around twenty life jackets.
The imam and the 29-year old man confessed to buying seven boats between December 2018 and April 2019, but they denied knowing from the start that they would be used for illegal crossings to the UK.
"When I discovered it, I thought of children on board and I told myself that someone could have died. I collapsed," the Senegalese man said in court, reported the AFP. The imam said he was ashamed, but prosecutors stated their explanations "did not reflect reality", pointing at the fact that the investigation showed how the imam would regularly visit the coastline close to the beaches the boats were discovered.
According to the prosecution, the imam was collaborating with human traffickers, taking commissions on the sale of each boat.