Plane grounded for days for human trafficking probe arrives in India

The passengers had been heading to Nicaragua but were instead blocked inside a French airport for four days in an exceptional holiday ordeal.
Indian passengers who travelled in an unmarked Legend Airlines A340 arrive in India from France
Posted at 7:14 AM, Dec 26, 2023

A charter plane that was grounded in France for a human trafficking investigation arrived in India with 276 Indians aboard early Tuesday, authorities said. The passengers had been heading to Nicaragua but were instead blocked inside the Vatry Airport for four days in an exceptional holiday ordeal.

The regional administration said that 276 of the original 303 passengers were en route to Mumbai, and that 25 others requested asylum in France. Those who remained were transferred to a special zone in Paris' Charles de Gaulle airport for asylum-seekers, it said. The passengers grounded in France had included a 21-month-old child and several unaccompanied minors.

The remaining two passengers were initially detained as part of a human trafficking investigation but were released Monday after appearing before a judge, the Paris prosecutor's office said. The judge named them as ‘’assisted witnesses'' to the case, a special status under French law that allows time for further investigation and could lead to eventual charges or to the case being dropped.

The Legend Airlines A340 plane stopped Thursday for refueling in Vatry en route from Fujairah airport in the United Arab Emirates for Managua, Nicaragua, and was grounded by police based on an anonymous tip that it could be carrying human trafficking victims.

Prosecutors wouldn’t comment on whether the passengers’ ultimate destination could have been the U.S., which has seen a surge in Indians crossing the Mexico-U.S. border this year.

French authorities are working to determine the aim of the original flight, and opened a judicial inquiry into activities by an organized criminal group helping foreigners enter or stay in a country illegally, the prosecutor's office said.

It did not specify Monday whether human trafficking — which the U.N. defines as “the recruitment, transportation, transfer, harboring or receipt of people through force, fraud or deception, with the aim of exploiting them for profit" — is still suspected.

The Vatry airport was requisitioned by police for days. Local officials, medics and volunteers installed cots and ensured regular meals and showers for those held inside. Then it turned into a makeshift courtroom Sunday as judges, lawyers and interpreters filled the terminal to carry out emergency hearings to determine the next steps.

Some lawyers at Sunday’s hearings protested authorities’ handling of the situation and the passengers’ rights, suggesting that police and prosecutors overreacted to the anonymous tip.

The Indian Embassy posted its thanks on X, formerly Twitter, to French officials for ensuring that the Indians could go home. French authorities worked through Christmas Eve and Christmas morning on formalities to allow passengers to leave France, regional prosecutor Annick Browne told The Associated Press.

Foreigners can be held up to four days in a transit zone for police investigations in France, after which a special judge must rule on whether to extend that to eight days.

Legend Airlines lawyer Liliana Bakayoko said some passengers didn't want to go to India because they had paid for a tourism trip to Nicaragua. The airline has denied any role in possible human trafficking.

The U.S. government has designated Nicaragua as one of several countries deemed as failing to meet minimum standards for eliminating human trafficking. Nicaragua has also been used as a migratory springboard for people fleeing poverty or conflict because of relaxed or visa-free entry requirements for some countries. Sometimes charter flights are used for the journey.