Volunteers rescuing migrants to face trial in Greece
A Greek court was set to hear a smuggling-related criminal case against a group of 24 aid workers and volunteers who participated in migrant rescue operations on an eastern Greek island.
International human rights groups have widely criticized the prosecution of the defendants, who deny all charges and say they did nothing more than help rescue people whose lives were in danger.
The aid workers include prominent Syrian human rights worker Sarah Mardini, a refugee herself and competitive swimmer whose sister Yusra Mardini was part of the refugee swimming team at the Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro in 2016 and Tokyo in 2021. The sisters’ story was made into a Netflix movie.
Mardini, who was not present for Tuesday’s hearing, and fellow volunteer Sean Binder spent more than three months in jail on the island of Lesbos after their 2018 arrest on misdemeanor charges that include espionage, forgery and unlawful use of radio frequencies.
The case was initially set to go ahead in 2021 but was postponed over procedural issues. The two are also under investigation for felonies, but no such charges have yet been brought.
“What is on trial today is human rights. That is the fundamental problem,” Binder said outside court before Tuesday’s hearing, hoping the case would proceed to trial as planned.
“We are desperate to go to the trail because what we did was legal,” Binder said. “And we need the judge to acknowledge that we need to get through this, because until then, there is a shadow of a doubt, not over me alone, but over anybody who does search and rescue.”
Human rights group Amnesty International has described the case against the aid workers as “farcical” and called on Greek authorities to drop the charges.
“Sarah and Sean, we should do it if we were in their position. Helping people at risk of drowning in one of the deadliest sea routes in Europe and assisting them on the shoreline is not a crime,” Nils Muiznieks, director of Amnesty’s European Regional Office, said in a statement ahead of Tuesday’s hearing.
“This trial reveals how the Greek authorities will go to extreme lengths to deter humanitarian assistance and discourage migrants and refugees from seeking safety on the country’s shores, something which we see in several European countries,” he said. “It is farcical that this trial is even taking place.”
Greece, which saw around a million migrants and refugees cross its shores from nearby Türkiye at the height of the refugee crisis in 2015, has clamped down on migration, erecting a fence along much of its land border with Türkiye and increasing sea patrols near its islands.
Greek officials say they have a strict but fair migration policy. Despite increasing evidence to the contrary, they also deny conducting illegal summary deportations of people arriving in Greek territory without allowing them to apply for asylum, a procedure known as “pushbacks.”