By Caroline Davies
A Sudanese man who was granted asylum in Britain after walking through the 31-mile Channel tunnel from France has pleaded guilty to causing an obstruction to an engine or carriage.
Abdul Haroun, 40, from Darfur, was found and arrested close to the tunnel’s Folkestone exit on 4 August, and charged under the obscure Malicious Damages Act 1861, specifically section 36, with obstructing engines or carriages on a railway, punishable by up to two years in prison.
He had been due to stand trial on Wednesday but at the last minute entered a plea of guilty at a hearing at Canterbury crown court. He was sentenced to nine months’ imprisonment but walked free from court because of time already spent in custody awaiting trial.
Haroun, who speaks Zaghawa, a form of Arabic common in Darfur, and virtually no English, was detained for almost five months after his arrest. He was granted asylum on Christmas Eve.
His arrest came at a time when media coverage was dominated by images of many refugees and migrants attempting to reach Britain by scaling fences and attempting to board lorries and trains. Thirteen people are thought to have died in such attempts.
Two Iranians, Payam Moradi Mirahessari, 25, and Farein Vahdani, 20, who walked through the tunnel in October last year, both pleaded guilty to the same charge in April and were each given 14-month sentences.
The court heard that Haroun scaled a perimeter fence and then clung to metal poles inside the tunnel as trains sped past.
Philip Bennetts, prosecuting, said that upon his arrest Haroun, who had no formal education and could not read or write in his own language, said the word “Sudan”. An Arabic interpreter was provided and he was interviewed.
When asked how he had got into the tunnel, “he said in France. ‘I came from France. I was always trying to get here,’” Bennetts said. “He said: ‘I tried for a whole day to get into the tunnel. Early in the morning before the sun came up.’
“He was asked had he cut a hole in the perimeter fence and he said: ‘I jumped over the fence’. He had said he was alone, and he had left an undershirt in the tunnel. He was walking on the right, sometimes on the left.”
Bennetts said that when Haroun was asked how he had known which way to go, he replied: “All along my family and people we know [know] trains take you to the UK.”
Bennetts said: “Asked how he avoided trains, he said the trains were going fast and when he saw a train he held on to metal pieces on the wall until the trains go past.”
The court heard that Haroun told police he had come to the UK “for protection and to be safe”. At a later interview he told officers: “I had to do it … There wasn’t any other solution.”
Haroun was interviewed by Home Office officials on 23 December and granted asylum the following day.
Sentencing Haroun, the judge, Adele Williams, said he would be allowed to go free. She said: “I emphasise that this is done in the very particular circumstances of this case. Anyone else who might be temped to commit this offence in the future can only expect an immediate sentence of imprisonment.”
She told Haroun he had committed a serious offence.
“The reason why the courts of the UK take such a serious view of this criminality is that those who enter in this way normally do so clandestinely, seeking to evade the authorities who can, therefore, have no check upon who is entering the country. In the world in which we live of international crime and terrorism, that is a very serious matter.”
She added: “It is plain that having travelled from your native Sudan, you were in a state of desperation when you decided to walk through the Channel tunnel.”
Alluding to the sentence she had passed on the two Iranians, Williams said those defendants had committed the same offence in “more serious circumstances than you have done”.
Haroun’s defence team intend to appeal against the conviction.
The defence counsel, Richard Thomas, said Haroun had walked four miles to Margate police station every Wednesday to fulfil his bail conditions when staying in Kent. He had spent many hours walking on the beach practising his English, and was “diligent” in his English lessons. Haroun is now living in Birmingham.
In entering the tunnel “there was no mass influx or any criminal damage or any assault on tunnel staff”, said Thomas.
The court heard trains were delayed for several hours after the power was shut down when the tunnel operators became aware of Haroun in the tunnel.
The judge told Haroun: “You not only put your own life in danger but, in my judgment, you put the lives and safety of others in danger. You caused enormous inconvenience to a large number of people. It caused significant economic loss.
In a statement outside court Haroun’s solicitor Sadie Castle said: “He is relieved that the Crown Court proceedings have concluded and that he will not be returning to prison. Mr Haroun has pleaded guilty following a legal ruling by the judge.
“He obviously respects that ruling but in due course will be appealing
his conviction in the court of appeal.His priority now is to focus on rebuilding his life in the UK”.
Eurotunnel has previously expressed the hope that convictions would help deter other people from trying to cross through the tunnel illegally. Guardian (UK)