LYON, FRANCE - A French court is to rule Thursday on whether to convict a mountain guide of helping migrants enter the country illegally - the latest case that is testing France's "principle of fraternity" allowing humanitarian aid for irregular migrants.
The cases have centered on the Alps, where migrants traverse snowy passes between Italy and France, many ill-equipped for the cold. Each year some die of hypothermia.
Pierre Mumber, a 55-year-old ski instructor and member of migrant rights organization Tous Migrants, came across several West African migrants in January 2018 as he hiked through the Montgenèvre pass in search of people needing help.
Mumber argues he was giving legal humanitarian assistance. Tous Migrants co-president Michel Rousseau said Mumber was bringing warm clothes and drinks to migrants when he was arrested. Mumber's lawyer, Philippe Chaudron, has argued that his client helped them on French soil.
A court in the city of Gap convicted Mumber earlier this year for "aiding the irregular entry of foreigners," giving him a three-month suspended sentence. It pointed to the fact that his cell phone signals bounced off the Italian side as evidence that Mumber had illegally helped them cross the border.
His lawyer says the prosecutor had insufficient evidence and appealed, and the regional appeals court in Grenoble is handing down its verdict Thursday. Lawyer Chaudon argues that in the Alps, cell phone signals and ski slopes often straddle both sides of the border.
"My client is reproached for going back and forth between the two countries, but he is a ski instructor and the slopes of Montgenèvre cross into Italy," Chaudon told The Associated Press.
Between 1,500 and 2,000 migrants tried to illegally cross the border between France and Italy during a three-month period that winter, fueling both humanitarian efforts to help them and calls by nationalist politicians for a crackdown. It's part of a Europe-wide migrant challenge, since both countries are part of the European Union's border-free travel zone.
The case is one of several that has tested how the French judiciary handles citizens providing aid to migrants since France's Constitutional Council upheld the "principle of fraternity" in 2018.
That ruling came after the high-profile case of farmer Cedric Herrou, who housed some 200 migrants in the Alps' Roya valley and helped them travel within France. He was convicted in 2017 of helping migrants illegally cross the border.
EU rules criminalize those who help migrants without the proper documentation from crossing into or transit through member states, as well as those who house migrants for financial gain. Some countries have more stringent restrictions; Denmark, for instance, has prosecuted hundreds of its citizens for giving migrants food or a lift. Germany and Switzerland have also seen similar court cases.
France used to ban individuals from giving migrants free housing or transportation on French soil. The Constitutional Council, however, ruled that France's motto of "Liberty, Equality, Fraternity" gives citizens freedom "to assist others for a humanitarian purpose," even if they are in the country illegally. The decision, codified in French law in September 2018, excludes from punishment any person who helps migrants with a humanitarian goal without compensation.
Fewer cases involving migrant assistance have wound up in French courts since then, Chaudon said. Still, prosecutions have continued - particularly in regions along the Italian and Spanish borders.
Rousseau of Tous Migrants said lingering ambiguities over what constitutes a "humanitarian goal" and compensation under the law "opens the door to any interpretation."
Lola Schulmann of Amnesty International in France said a court decision to deny Mumber's appeal could dissuade benevolent citizens who want to save migrants' lives, particularly as winter sets in.
"These people should not find themselves in front of a court; they should be encouraged and celebrated," she told The AP.