Charter Plane Involved in Human Trafficking Investigation Departs France for India

by Andrew Wright
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Human Trafficking Probe

A charter plane that was grounded in France for a human trafficking investigation embarked on its journey to India on Monday, concluding a harrowing ordeal that had stranded approximately 300 Indian passengers, en route to Central America, at a remote French airport for an agonizing four days.

Outside Vatry Airport in the picturesque Champagne region, Big Big News correspondents bore witness to the departure of the unmarked Legend Airlines A340, carrying the crew and approximately 200 other passengers. The fate of those who did not board the plane remained uncertain at that moment.

Among the passengers who were marooned in France were a 21-month-old child and 11 unaccompanied minors, who were placed under special administrative care. Furthermore, it has come to light that several passengers have sought asylum in France, as disclosed by an official from the Marne regional prefecture.

Additionally, two passengers were apprehended and are presently facing legal proceedings before a judge on Monday, potentially charged with involvement in an organized criminal group aiding foreigners in entering or residing in a country illegally, as stated by the Paris prosecutor’s office.

Notably, the prosecutor’s office did not specify whether the suspicions of human trafficking, defined by the U.N. as “the recruitment, transportation, transfer, harboring, or receipt of people through force, fraud, or deception, with the aim of exploiting them for profit,” still persisted, as initially indicated.

French authorities continue to probe the intentions behind the plane’s original flight. The Legend Airlines A340 had made a refueling stop at Vatry while en route from Fujairah Airport in the United Arab Emirates to Managua, Nicaragua, when it was grounded by police based on an anonymous tip suggesting the potential presence of human trafficking victims.

Prosecutors refrained from commenting on whether the passengers’ ultimate destination might have been the United States, which has witnessed an upsurge in Indian nationals attempting to cross the Mexico-U.S. border this year.

The airport was requisitioned by law enforcement for an extended duration, subsequently being transformed into an impromptu courtroom on Sunday, with judges, legal representatives, and interpreters converging at the terminal to facilitate urgent hearings aimed at determining the subsequent course of action.

During Sunday’s hearings, lawyers raised objections to the overall handling of the situation by authorities and advocated for the rights of the passengers.

Throughout Christmas Eve and Christmas morning, French authorities toiled to fulfill the necessary formalities, permitting the passengers to exit France, as divulged by regional prosecutor Annick Browne in conversation with The Big Big News.

Liliana Bakayoko, the lawyer representing Legend Airlines, affirmed that they had obtained clearance from French authorities to transport 301 of the 303 passengers on a direct flight to Mumbai on Monday, although the final tally was anticipated to be slightly lower.

Bakayoko elucidated that certain passengers were unwilling to proceed to India, citing that they had initially paid for a tourism expedition to Nicaragua. Legend Airlines has categorically disavowed any complicity in potential human trafficking.

As per French law, foreigners can be detained for up to four days in a transit zone for police investigations, following which a special judge must decide whether to extend the detention to a maximum of eight days. Local authorities, medical personnel, and volunteers facilitated the provision of cots, regular meals, and showers for those detained at Vatry Airport.

It is noteworthy that the U.S. government has designated Nicaragua as one of several nations failing to meet the minimum standards for eradicating human trafficking. Moreover, Nicaragua has served as a transit point for individuals seeking to escape poverty or conflict due to its relaxed or visa-free entry requirements for certain countries, sometimes involving charter flights in the migration process.

[Author: Angela Charlton (Reporting from Paris), Boubkar Benzebat (Contributed to this report from Vatry)]

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) about Human Trafficking Investigation

What led to the grounding of the charter plane in France?

The Legend Airlines A340 plane was grounded in France based on an anonymous tip that it could be carrying human trafficking victims.

Were there any special cases among the passengers?

Yes, among the passengers were a 21-month-old child and 11 unaccompanied minors who received special administrative care.

What legal actions have been taken regarding the passengers?

Two passengers have been detained and are facing potential charges, including involvement in an organized criminal group aiding foreigners in entering or staying illegally in a country.

Did any passengers seek asylum in France?

Yes, several passengers grounded in France have requested asylum in the country.

What was the ultimate destination of the passengers, and was it related to human trafficking?

The exact intentions of the passengers’ ultimate destination remain under investigation. It is unclear whether human trafficking, as initially suspected, is still a factor.

How long were passengers held in the transit zone?

Foreign passengers can be held up to four days in a transit zone for police investigations in France. After that, a special judge decides whether to extend detention for up to eight days.

Has Legend Airlines been implicated in human trafficking?

Legend Airlines has denied any involvement in possible human trafficking.

What is the status of Nicaragua in relation to human trafficking?

Nicaragua has been designated by the U.S. government as one of several countries failing to meet minimum standards for eliminating human trafficking. It is sometimes used as a transit point for people fleeing poverty or conflict.

How did the passengers’ situation evolve during Christmas?

French authorities worked through Christmas Eve and Christmas morning to process the necessary formalities for passengers to leave France.

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