Dutch pair face jail in Latvia after ‘helping refugees in act of compassion’

Two Dutch people are facing prison sentences of up to eight years in Latvia over what they say was an act of compassion to help a group of refugees reach safety, including the sister of one of the pair.

The case has put Latvia’s harsh laws on migration under the spotlight and comes as a local rights activist also faces jail time, for helping refugees who crossed into Latvia via the country’s border with neighbouring Belarus.

Dutch citizens Abdulaal Hussein, a 24-year-old actor, and Martine Doppen, a 30-year-old climate campaigner, have been released on bail but are due to stand trial later this year.

Hussein, a Dutch citizen of Sudanese origin, said his younger sister Mabroka left Sudan last spring after taking part in a documentary that highlighted her activism against the regime there and receiving threats.

After making it to Egypt, desperate to reach the safety of Europe, she paid intermediaries to help her with a journey via Russia and Belarus. Her group was able to successfully cross the border to Latvia but the smugglers left her and a group of four other Sudanese people at an abandoned farmhouse, where she was stuck without food, water or heating.

“When she was able to contact us with her location, we tried to find someone in Latvia who could help her but it was impossible, so we decided to go there ourselves and rescue her,” Doppen said. A shaky handheld video shows the moment of joy when Hussein and his sister were reunited. He and Doppen took Mabroka and two other Sudanese women in the group to their car and drove them to an acquaintance’s house in Lithuania.

Footage captures the moment Abdulaal finds his sister Mabroka in an abandoned farmhouse – video

“We left some food but the two people who were left behind were weak and super scared. We just followed our gut feeling and decided we had to go back for them,” said Doppen.

She and Hussein were driven by the human instinct to help people in need, she said, and they knew that if the Latvian authorities caught the refugees they would probably be pushed back to Belarus.

The route through Belarus into the EU has been used by many people since 2021, when the dictatorial regime of Alexander Lukashenko was accused of weaponising migration by allowing people from conflict-stricken countries to enter Belarus and then encouraging them to cross the border.

Activists say that, even if that was initially true, many of those who cross the border are genuinely in need and deserving of having their asylum claims heard. Instead, guards in Poland and Latvia have been accused of violent “pushbacks”, not allowing people who cross to claim asylum. Often they are then stuck in a forested grey zone for days or weeks as Belarusian guards do not allow them to return further into Belarus. Many people have died at the border over the past three years.

An Amnesty International report in late 2022 found instances of systematic mistreatment by Latvian guards of people who crossed the border. “Latvian authorities … tortured and ill-treated people; subjected many to excessive use of force; and arbitrarily detained people in secret locations, possibly amounting to enforced disappearance in some cases,” the report claimed.

People who have travelled from the Middle East and elsewhere stand in front of Belarusian service personnel at the Belarus-Poland border in 2021. Photograph: Oksana Manchuk/AP

Hussein and Doppen said that, knowing what Latvian authorities might do if they caught the remaining two people from the group, they felt obliged to help, so they drove back to pick up the pair, arriving late at night. Soon after collecting them they were stopped at a road block and arrested on suspicion of people smuggling. All four were taken to a police station.

“I explained to the police that these people are in danger, they have been without food for five days, and they didn’t care at all, they left them on the ground in the police station for the entire night,” said Doppen.

She and Hussein were also arrested. She was released on bail, quickly, for a sum of €6,200, while Hussein was sent to jail and released only after a bail payment of €30,000 after a month. In jail he met a Cuban man who had been arrested for a similar reason: he had travelled to Latvia to meet his wife, who had crossed from Belarus with the hope of eventually joining him in Germany.

skip past newsletter promotion

“While the law does not prohibit a person, for example, from providing food and drink, as soon as it is transported or shelter is provided, criminal liability ensues with severe consequences,” said Raimonds Briedis, Hussein’s Latvian lawyer. The pair face between two and eight years in jail.

Hussein, who has worked as a volunteer to help newly arrived refugees integrate into Dutch society, said he felt it was deeply unfair to put someone on trial for trying to help people in need, when the motive was only humanitarian and not financial.

Doppen and Hussein plan to accept their “guilt” but make the case that they acted out of compassion and human instinct, and hope for a suspended sentence. Both are now in the Netherlands but will be obliged to return to Latvia for the trial. Mabroka is in the Netherlands awaiting the outcome of her asylum claim.

The trial appears to be part of an attempt to intimidate anyone who may want to help at the border. Unlike in Poland, where a network of activists offers help and assistance to people who cross from Belarus, in Latvia there is almost nobody carrying out such work.

Ieva Raubiško, one of the few activists to have done so in recent years, is on trial and facing a sentence of up to two years for helping a group of people in need who crossed the border.

She was arrested for giving assistance to a group of Syrian refugees inside a closed zone near the border early in 2023.

Raubiško said: “We feared for their lives and health. We met them in Latvia, we were not sure we would manage to meet them. They came in the snow and we immediately called the ambulance and the border guards. We were really worried about their lives.”

Two of the five people have already been granted asylum in Latvia, but authorities accused Raubiško of facilitating their illegal crossing, and the trial continues. The punishment is up to two years in prison, a fine or social work. She said her case and that against the Dutch pair were designed to deter anyone from helping refugees.

“We have a border with two violent, unpredictable regimes, and there is a war going on. I can understand the security concerns. But I cannot accept people losing limbs or dying unidentified at our borders,” she said.

The Guardian

Leave a Reply