Essex hiker arrested after forest fire

A HIKER from Essex suspected of accidentally starting a massive forest fire in Spain could be made a scapegoat by the authorities, a lawyer warned last night .

A HIKER from Essex suspected of accidentally starting a massive forest fire in Spain could be made a scapegoat by the authorities, a lawyer warned last night .

Michael Hanks, 59, from Colchester, and his 50-year-old companion have been questioned about the blaze in the Granada region of southern Spain.

It is understood the pair were hiking through national park land near Granada when they became lost just before nightfall on Thursday.

They raised the alarm with a mobile telephone and then decided to light a small fire as a beacon to alert Civil Guard mountain rescue patrols searching for them.

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The beacon worked and they were soon rescued. But the fire raged out of control and spread through the tinder-dry forest at the height of a severe drought.

By early afternoon on Friday more than 150 firemen with 25 appliances, backed up by seven helicopters and five fire-fighting aircraft, were tackling the blaze.

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Reinforcements, including five more aircraft and two helicopters, were also called to fight the flames.

A Foreign Office spokeswoman said: "They have been released without bail. They have got to stay in the country until the judge has enough information.

"They are gathering enough information to see if there is a case or not."

The couple must to report to a court in the Granada province every three days.

It is understood no specific charges have been levelled against the pair as the judge is waiting for further investigations to be carried out.

But yesterday Stephen Jakobi, of Fair Trials Abroad, told the EADT: "What does concern me is that it's the inaction of the authorities that's the cause of the real problem and not the intention of the accused or anything like that.

"There's a real danger they will be used as scapegoats for official negligence."

He added: "Foreigners make very useful scapegoats and the Spanish legal system is very dodgy when it comes to accusations and proving beyond reasonable doubt. They don't seem to work on that principle most of the time."

Mr Jakobi said: "It's most unsatisfactory to have people hanging around on national bail and reporting to local police stations over what could be a very long period of time."

He said his organisation had been pressing for a European bail system, which would enable people to go home throughout their bail period, but it is about three years away from being set up.

Last Monday new figures were released by Spain's government showing a big increase in land destroyed by wildfires this year compared with the same period last year, with rainfall at its lowest since record-keeping began.

Seventeen people have died this year as a result of forest fires in Spain, including 11 firefighters who died in a massive blaze that was sparked by a barbecue fire in the central province of Guadalajara last month.

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