By Estelle Shirbon
CANTERBURY, England (Reuters) - A Sudanese man who walked through the Channel Tunnel last summer at the height of Europe's refugee crisis walked free on Wednesday after a lengthy court case and said his priority now was to rebuild his life in Britain.
Abdul Haroun, who fled war in his native Darfur region, was sentenced to nine months in jail for obstructing a railway but had already spent as long in pre-trial detention.
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He was arrested as he emerged from the railway tunnel after walking 50 km (30 miles) from France in near total darkness, clinging to metal brackets on the tunnel walls to dodge passing trains.
"Even if I died, there wasn't another solution," he told police when asked what made him walk through the tunnel, the court heard.
Channel Tunnel operator Eurotunnel and some politicians had called for him to be severely punished to deter others from following his example, while supporters said that as a genuine refugee he should not be prosecuted at all.
The first person known to have made it clandestinely through the tunnel on foot, Haroun made global headlines at a time when the migration crisis on Europe's borders was causing political tensions across the continent, including in Britain.
Immigration is now one of the main issues in Thursday's referendum on whether Britain should leave the European Union.
Haroun spent five months in prison until he was granted asylum last December and released on bail in January.
His lawyers tried to get the charge against him dropped but Judge Adele Williams rejected their arguments, leading him to change his plea to guilty. He will appeal against his conviction on the basis that the judge's ruling was wrong.
"His priority now is to focus on rebuilding his life in the UK," his lawyer Sadie Castle told reporters after sentencing.
"A STATE OF DESPERATION"
An ethnic Zaghawa whose age was given by police as 40 but who does not know his exact date of birth, Haroun received no formal education as a child and cannot read or write. When he was arrested he had no identity documents and no belongings.
He fled persecution by the Sudanese government-backed Janjaweed militia in 2004 and spent years at a camp on the Kari-Yari dam on Sudan's border with Chad before making his way to Britain via Egypt, Libya, Italy and France.
He told police he jumped over the tunnel perimeter fence near Calais and made his way to England alone.
"It is plain that having traveled from your native Sudan, you were in a state of desperation when you decided to walk through the Channel Tunnel," Judge Williams told him.
He spent the first few weeks after he was freed on bail living with a British woman who is an active refugee rights campaigner in the seaside town of Margate, Kent.
In a character reference handed to the judge, she said he had helped with cooking, cleaning and gardening, had taken English lessons and done his homework assiduously, and had often taken long walks along the beach.
He walked 5 miles (7 km) to the police station in the town every Wednesday to meet his bail terms, the court heard.
Haroun subsequently moved to Birmingham, Britain's second-largest city, where he is in contact with other Darfuri people who can speak his language, people who have helped him said.
Judge Williams said she had been relatively lenient due to the circumstances of his case. "Anyone else who might be tempted to commit this offence in the future can only expect an immediate sentence of imprisonment," she said.
(Editing by Stephen Addison)