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Criminal investigation against Spanish human rights activist Helena Maleno closed
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The Moroccan criminal investigation into alleged human trafficking by Spanish human rights activist Helena Maleno has been closed. The Tangiers Court of Appeal last week confirmed that there is no evidence of criminal activity by Maleno, against whom the Moroccan authorities opened an investigation in December 2017. She was accused of trafficking in persons due to her alarm calls to the Spanish authorities concerning vessels in distress on the journey between Spain and Morocco.

The Tangiers court of first instance had already provisionally closed the case on 12 December 2018, but the decision was appealed by the Moroccan prosecutor. However, the Court of Appeal reiterated the initial decision, Maleno confirmed to

"I trusted in the justice system of Morocco, which is also my country, and we have won this battle," Helena Maleno said. "At a time when the defence of migrant persons is being criminalised across the world, particularly in Europe, the closing of the case is exemplary news for us continue with our work," she added.

The Moroccan judicial process, which has kept the activist on edge since December 2017, had its origin in an investigation initiated in 2012 in Spain by the National Police's Central Squad of Illegal Immigration Networks and False Documents (UCRIF Central). The unit connected the activist with a "people trafficking network" because of her calls to Maritime Rescue (Salvamiento Maritimo) that led to the lives of hundreds of migrants being saved.

In 2017 the prosecutor of the Audencia Nacional (a national Spanish court with jurisdiction over crimes such as terrorism, fraud, drug and human trafficking) shelved the proceedings put together by UCRIF Central when it could not find any evidence of criminal activity in the investigation.

However, prior to the Audencia Nacional closing the case, UCRIF Central's files were sent to the Moroccan judicial authorities. They then opened an investigation into Maleno in Morocco, where she lives.

On 30 January 2018 the Moroccan judge responsible for the case declared the investigation over, which at the time led sources close to the activist's defence campaign to believe that a decision would be made in the coming weeks. However, Maleno spent a further year anxiously awaiting the verdict that was confirmed by the Court of Appeal last week.

"More than a year with the uncertainty and the anxiety of being persecuted for doing the right thing has caused strain in the lives of her and her loved ones," Maleno's legal team noted. "The closure of the case is the first step towards starting to repair this damage, but a long road still remains for her to be able to recover all her rights."

Through a system of alerts, her NGO, Caminando Fronteras (Walking Borders), has enabled the rescue of hundreds of people trying to arrive on the Spanish coasts in unstable vessels. In 2015 she was awarded the human rights award 'Nacho de la Mata' by the General Council of Spanish Lawyers for her work. The Spanish minister of development, José Luis Ábalos, recognised in January that some 70% of dinghy rescues carried out by Maritime Rescue in the Alborán Sea took place thanks to Maleno's warnings.

Through this process, Maleno has received support from various institutions and organisations - Madrid Council, the Parliament of Navarra and a range of NGOs, such as Oxfam Intermón, which launched a petition in favour of the activist. In March 2018 the UN's special rapporteur on human rights defenders denounced the "criminalisation" of activists that fight for the rights of migrants. "Some human rights defenders like Helena Maleno have even been acused of the international crime of human trafficking as a result of their struggle against illegal practices such as 'hot returns'," highlighted Michel Forst.

Another UN representative, the rapporteur against extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions, recently questioned the "harassment" suffered by activists and NGOs that, like Helena Maleno, dedicate themselves to defending or rescuing migrants that risk their lives at sea.

"They use two principal tactics. The first is to accuse humanitarian organisations of smuggling," said Agnes Callamard, who also directly cited Maleno's case. "The Moroccan authorities are investigating Helena Maleno for trafficking in persons," highlighted the UN rapporteur. "Up to now there has been no publication of a single piece of evidence that could count against the humanitarian agents who have been denounced and that have been conflated with smugglers," she warned.

After learning of the shelving of the case in Morocco, Maleno's NGO Caminando Fronteras expressed its gratitude "to the lawyers, organisations, journalists, migrant communities, international bodies and people who have acted in solidarity who are conscious that the criminalisation of the defence of human rights represents a democratic step backwards." They highlighted that "to defend Helena Maleno is to defend all those people and collective who every day fight for the rights of migrant persons."

Following her acquittal, Helena Maleno Garzón released a video message (available via Twitter) to thank all the people who supported her and to provide some background information on the case and its origins in investigative activities by the Spanish police which were passed on to Moroccan authorities after the case was shelved in Spain. She noted her joy at the outcome, but also stressed that it has been a traumatic period for her.


Marruecos archiva la causa contra la activista española Helena Maleno por sus llamadas a Salvamento Marítimo,, 11 March 2019

Further reading

APDHA, EntreFronteras and the Andalusia Union of Journalists call for an end to the information blackout at the southern border (Statewatch News Online, 6 February 2019)

Suspended sentence for Spanish activist is "decisive" for decriminalising solidarity with migrants and refugees (Statewatch News Online, 19 December 2018)

Irregular migration to Spain: a state of exception (Statewatch Analysis, March 2018, pdf)

Human rights violations at Spain's southern border: steps towards restoring legality (Statewatch Analysis, December 2017, pdf)

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