By Alex Whiting
LONDON, Jan 12 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - More than 166,000 people have signed online petitions pleading for leniency for a Briton facing trial in France this week for trying to smuggle a four-year-old Afghan girl into Britain from a migrants' camp on the French coast.
Former soldier Rob Lawrie befriended the girl and her father while volunteering at the camp in northern France.
When the father asked Lawrie to take the girl to her relatives in England, Lawrie said he initially refused, but then his paternal instinct kicked in and he could not bear to leave her in the "squalid" camp.
Lawrie, a 49-year-old father of four, hid Bahar Ahmadi in his van on Oct. 24, but was caught by border police who also found two Eritrean men in the back of the van. Lawrie said they had stowed away without his knowledge.
One online petition, on change.org, has more than 115,000 signatories, most of them based in France. The petition asks the French courts to drop the charges, and the British government to intervene in his case.
More than 51,000 people have signed a separate online petition, on 38 Degrees, asking British Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond to ask his French counterpart for clemency for Lawrie.
"I do regret it because it has cost me everything," Lawrie told Reuters TV last week.
"It has cost me my family and it's financially bankrupted me, but that's about me. It was done on the spur of the moment about compassion. Yes I was compassionately right, but it was illegal."
Lawrie is due to appear before a French court on Jan. 14, accused of helping illegal immigration, and could face a jail term of up to five years.
"(Bahar) is a special little girl. She's become almost representative of child refugees. After all the months I spent with her, I never saw her without a smile," he said.
(Reporting by Alex Whiting, editing by Tim Pearce. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, corruption and climate change. Visit www.trust.org)