Spanish activist Helena Maleno has saved thousands of lives by alerting maritime authorities to the locations of migrant boats in distress.
Rabat – The Court of Appeals in Tangier has dropped its charges against Spanish activist Helena Maleno. Morocco had charged Maleno, a spokesperson and activist for migrants, in 2017 with colluding with human traffickers to illegally move people across borders. However, the court confirmed on Monday that there was no evidence of a crime.
Based in Tangier for the last 16 years, Maleno leads the NGO Walking Borders, or Caminando Fronteras. Founded in 2002, the organization acts as a lifeline for migrants who are trying to reach Europe by crossing from Morocco to Spain. Walking Borders also documents human rights violations on both sides of the border and provides legal, social, and medical support to migrants.
Maleno regularly receives calls from migrants in distress as they attempt the perilous Mediterranean crossing and then alerts maritime authorities in Spain, Morocco, and Algeria to the existence and location of the boats.
In a speech earlier this year, the Spanish minister of interior development, Jose Luis Albalos Meco, said that 70 percent of calls to maritime authorities regarding boats at risk come from Maleno herself or her organization. The statement was backed up by Captain Miguel Zea, maritime rescue chief in Almeria, Spain, who has said that Maleno “is the person who has saved the most lives in the Strait – at least 10,000.”
Throughout the proceedings, Maleno has received an outpouring of support both within Spain and internationally.
In a statement published by Walking Borders, more than 200 Spanish figures spoke out in support of Maleno and her work. Among those figures were teachers, journalists, professors, and even actors, such as Javier Bardem.
The statement defends Maleno against “criminalization and harassment” and asserts her right to continue saving lives and fighting against “European policies which have turned the Mediterranean Sea into a mass grave.”
UN human rights experts have denounced the case against Maleno, including the UN special rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders in a report to the UN Human Rights Council in 2018.
Maleno has won international recognitions with several awards, including the human rights award “Nacho de la Mata” (2015), the Human Rights Award of the Human Rights Association of Spain (2018), and the MacBride Peace Prize (2018).
The charges Morocco filed against Maleno have their origins in an investigation led by Spain’s Unit for Combating Immigration Networks and Document Counterfeiting (UCRIF) in 2012. The investigation was sparked by frequent calls made by Maleno to naval authorities regarding boats of migrants in the western Mediterranean waters. The calls, despite saving countless lives, also aided directly in the migrants’ transfer to the Spanish coast.
In April 2017, Spain found insufficient grounds to pursue a criminal case but passed the investigation on to Morocco. The Moroccan courts first dismissed the case in December 2018, but Monday’s announcement, in response to an appeal filed with the Moroccan Prosecutor’s Office, stands as final.
For the first time since 2012, Maleno is free of the possibility of facing time in prison.
Maleno responded to the news in a video she posted to her Twitter. In the video, she expresses that while she is “happy to be free,” the struggle does not end with the charges being dropped. She said that “this is a very difficult time for human rights defenders as we are being persecuted and criminalized … To defend the right to life is not a crime.”