Criminal case against Helena Maleno dropped
On 5 March 2019, the Tangier Court of Appeals in Morocco dropped the criminal charges against migrant rights defender Helena Maleno Garzón. The charges of “promoting illegal immigration” and “migrant-smuggling” were brought against her in connection to her work on protection of the rights of migrants. The Court of Appeals reaffirmed the conclusion of the investigative judge on 11 December 2018, indicating that there is no evidence of any crime committed by the human rights defender. If Helena Maleno had been convicted, she would have faced up to life imprisonment.
Helena Maleno is a journalist and researcher who has been living in Morocco for 14 years. She is an expert in migration and human-trafficking and is particularly focused on women's and children's rights. Her human rights work has been recognized internationally and she has received several awards, including the Human Rights Award "Nacho de la Mata" (2015) granted by the General Council of Spanish Lawyers, the Human Rights Award of the Human Rights Association of Spain (2018), and the MacBride Peace Prize (2018), awarded by International Peace Bureau. The criminalisation of Helena Maleno in Morocco has been denounced by UN human rights experts, including the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders and the Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions. Helena is a founding member of Caminando Fronteras, a non-governmental human rights organisation that has been focusing on the protection of migrants’ rights for the last 16 years. The organisation offers a lifeline to migrants who are risking their lives to reach Europe, crossing by sea in boats that are unseaworthy. On receiving calls from at-risk migrants, the organisation alerts the maritime authorities of Spain, Morocco and Algeria. Caminando Fronteras also provides legal, social and healthcare support to migrants and documents human rights abuses from both sides of the borders.
In addition to the criminal charges, Helena Maleno has faced threats, defamation campaigns, intimidation, and harassment in connection to her peaceful and legitimate human rights work. On 31 January 2019, the Spanish Minister of Internal Development made a public statement accusing organisations working on migrants’ rights, including Caminando Fronteras, of promoting irregular immigration and human trafficking through their humanitarian work in the Mediterranean Sea. The challenges Helena Maleno has faced, have also affected many other defenders of the rights of migrants in Europe. Her case is an emblematic example of the increasingly hostile environment, criminalisation and intimidation that the human rights defenders working on issues related to migrants and refugees in Europe have been facing in recent years.
Women's Link Worldwide, Justice Associates (JASS), Front Line Defenders, the World Organisation Against Torture (OMCT) and the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH) welcome the decision of the Tangier Court of Appeals to close the criminal investigation against Helena Maleno. However, they remain worried about the overall situation of human rights defenders working to promote and protect the rights of migrants. They also remind Morocco and Spain of States’ obligations to respect and protect all human rights defenders in all circumstances and ensure that they are able to carry out their legitimate activities without fear of reprisals and free of all restrictions, including judicial harassment.