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French judge to decide on extending stay of 303 passengers, mostly Indians, of grounded flight

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This photograph taken on December 23, 2023, shows the Airbus A340 which was grounded over suspected “human trafficking” at Vatry airport, north-eastern France.

This photograph taken on December 23, 2023, shows the Airbus A340 which was grounded over suspected “human trafficking” at Vatry airport, north-eastern France.
| Photo Credit: AFP

The 303 passengers, mostly Indians, of a plane detained by French authorities since December 21 over suspected “human trafficking”, are set to appear before a judge on December 24 at the airport to decide on their continued detention.

The plane that took off from Dubai in the United Arab Emirates carrying 303 passengers and bound for Nicaragua was grounded at the Chalons-Vatry airport in Marne on December 21 over suspected “human trafficking”.

Hearings before a judge of freedoms and detention will begin this Sunday to decide whether or not to keep in the waiting area of the airport the passengers of the flight, BFM TV, a French news broadcast television and radio network, reported.

Francois Procureur, lawyer and president of Chalons-en-Champagne, said: “I don’t know if this has already been done in France.” Vatry airport, in Marne, 150 km east of Paris, is preparing to become a courtroom. The airport mostly serves budget airlines.

The 303 passengers must appear before the judge from 9 am this Sunday until Monday.

French border police can initially hold a foreign national for up to four days if they land in France and are prevented from travelling on to their intended destination, the report said.

French law allows that period to be extended to eight days if a judge approves it, then another eight days in exceptional circumstances, up to a maximum of 26 days.

“It is urgent since we cannot keep foreigners in a waiting zone for more than 96 hours. Beyond that, it is the judge of freedoms and detention who must rule on their fate,” François said.

On December 23, the Indian embassy said it was continuing to work with the French government for the welfare of the Indians currently at the Varty airport and for early resolution of the situation.

Embassy consular staff were stationed at the airport, the mission posted on X.

The airport reception hall has been transformed by prefectural decree into a waiting area for foreigners.

Four hearings will be organised simultaneously, with four judges, four clerks, as many interpreters and at least four lawyers, the television network reported.

The hearing should be public, but the judge can order it to be held on camera.

“We are in Vatry, far from everything…It is obvious that we considered relocating, but all these people have rights,” François said. “We are working in a hurry…it’s unprecedented, we are all mobilised.” Among the passengers are 11 unaccompanied minors, and according to the broadcaster, six of them have already taken steps to request asylum in France.

“These people will have to be interviewed and they will be told whether or not they can benefit from political refugee status,” the news network quoted Francois as saying.

The prefecture in the northeastern department of Marne said the A340 aircraft, operated by Romanian company Legend Airlines, “remained grounded on the tarmac at Vatry airport following its landing” on Thursday.

The newspaper report says the prefecture said the plane had been due to refuel and was carrying 303 Indian nationals who had probably been working in the UAE.

According to the reports, the travel may have been planned by the Indian passengers to reach Central America from where they can attempt to enter the United States or Canada illegally.

But an anonymous tip indicated that passengers were “likely to be victims of human trafficking” in an organised gang, alerted the authorities.

The investigation, carried out by the National Jurisdiction for the Fight against Organised Crime (JUNALCO), aims to “verify whether any elements would corroborate” suspicions of human trafficking, according to the Paris prosecutor’s office.

On Thursday, two people, passengers, were taken into police custody to “verify and corroborate the suspicion of trafficking in human beings by an organised gang”, a crime punishable by twenty years of criminal imprisonment and three million euros in fines.

A lawyer for Legend Airlines, Liliana Bakayoko, denied the firm’s involvement in the trafficking.

She told BFMTV that the firm was ready to cooperate with the French authorities and hoped the plane could be on its way in the next couple of days.

Legend Airlines “intervenes as a carrier”, she said, adding that “the flight was carried out for “a client of the company”.

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