A former British soldier who tried to smuggle a four-year-old Afghan refugee into the UK has been spared jail by a French court.

Rob Lawrie said he acted in a "moment of madness" in October 2015 when he agreed to take Bahar Ahmadi – known as "Bru" – from the "Jungle", a notorious refugee camp near Calais. He attempted to smuggle her, on the wishes of her father, into the UK by hiding her in his truck.

He appeared in a French court in Boulogne on 14 January charged with aiding illegal immigration, punishable by up to five years in prison. But the court showed him leniency and instead handed him a €1,000 (£754, $1,085) fine, suspended for five years, for endangering the welfare of a child because she was not wearing a seat belt while in his vehicle.

Lawrie, 49, was reported by a journalist for French media organisation FranceTVinfo to be in tears after hearing the ruling. He reportedly said: "France is a humane country. Thank you, France. Compassion has won."

The incident came after the former British Army physical training instructor had been delivering tents and aid to the Calais camp when he met the child's father, who repeatedly begged him to take her across the Channel to relatives living in Leeds.

Lawrie, from Guiseley, Leeds, said he first refused but changed his mind deciding he could not leave the girl in the squalid conditions at the camp. He agreed to hide her in his van but was caught when British border police in Calais discovered the girl. Unknown to Lawrie, two Eritrean men had also sneaked into his truck.

Lawrie said he regretted his actions and would not repeat efforts to save refugees. In court today, he was reported to have arrived looking "very nervous" and "shaking". He was quoted as saying "sorry" to the court, adding: "What I did was stupid, I was emotionally exhausted."

Lawrie previously said he wanted to volunteer as an aid worker after seeing an image of the Syrian toddler Aylan (Alan) Kurdi, whose body washed up on a beach in Turkey. "It was that moment that took me from being a passive supporter of refugees to an active supporter of refugees," he said. "It's more unfair to have people living like that than for me to spend five years in prison."

A petition requesting UK Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond ask the French authorities for clemency has been signed by more than 120,000 people.

Before his trial, Lawrie pleaded for the French authorities to deal with him leniently.