Trial of aid workers in Greece is adjourned amid protests

Lesvos court declares itself "not competent" to try the case

19 November, 18:21

    ATHENS - Two aid workers, among dozens of others, involved in refugee rescues have had their trial in Lesvos, Greece adjourned today amid protests and calls from human rights groups that authorities drop the "absurd" charges of spying and disclosing state secrets.

    Sarah Mardini, a 25-year-old Syrian refugee, and Seán Binder, a 27-year-old German national, are among 24 aid workers who are facing a series of charges dating from the time they spent volunteering, spotting and helping boats in distress in Lesvos.

    But in a case that various rights groups such as Amnesty International have described as "farcical", it seems that the saga will go on.

    Judicial officials said the misdemeanor court on Lesvos had declared itself not competent to try the case and all of the defendants left without any restrictions pending the scheduling of a new trial that would involve more senior judges.

    The aid workers were affiliated with the Emergency Response Center International (ERCI), a nonprofit search-and-rescue group operating on Lesvos from 2016 to 2018. The island was then on the frontline of Europe's refugee crisis, with scores of asylum-seekers arriving daily on its shores.

    The defendants, including many who spent several months in pre-trial detention, face a range of charges including misdemeanor counts of espionage-related offenses, illegal access to state communications and assisting criminal activity.

    They deny any wrongdoing, maintaining that they simply wanted to help save lives when the island of Lesvos was overwhelmed by refugee and migrant arrivals from nearby Turkey.

    "I feel very angry. Because we have to wait years more. We've been waiting for years. We spent three and a half months in pre-trial (detention) and now we have to wait again," Binder told reporters outside the court.

    Binder was arrested in 2018 and spent 107 days in pre-trial detention.

    There were protests outside the court ahead of the decisions, with hashtags such as #DropTheCharges and #SolidarityOnTrial also started on social media in support of the 24 aid workers.

    They also face felony charges including 'people smuggling', 'fraud', 'being part of a criminal organisation' and 'money laundering' which, if they come to trial, could lead to up to 25 years imprisonment.

    Nils Muižnieks, Amnesty International's Director of European Regional Office, said that the charges are "unfair and baseless", in a media statement.

    "Sarah and Seán did lifesaving humanitarian work, spotting boats in distress off Greek shores and providing those onboard with blankets, water and a warm welcome. The charges they face are farcical and should never have come to trial.

    "This emblematic case demonstrates how far the Greek authorities will go to deter people from helping refugees and migrants.

    Stopping rescue operations doesn't stop people from making dangerous journeys, it simply makes those journeys more perilous.

    "Seán and Sarah's lives are on hold, their futures at risk simply because they showed solidarity and compassion to people in need. Sarah and Seán must not pay the price for Greece's cruelty at Europe's borders." Amnesty International said that according to a legal opinion from human rights legal firm Leigh Day in London, there have been several serious breaches of international human rights law in Seán's case to date. Seán approached Leigh Day to commission a legal opinion on the legality in international law of his arrest, pre-trial detention and proposed trial for alleged offences committed whilst volunteering on search and rescue missions for Emergency Response Centre International.

    Tessa Gregory, partner at law firm Leigh Day, was quoted in Amnesty's media release as saying: "On the basis of the evidence we have seen, we believe that there have been serious breaches of Seán's human rights by the Greek authorities in relation to his detention, the charges brought against him and the delays in hearing his case in court.

    Seán's case is important as it shows what appears to be a disturbing trend towards criminalising human rights defenders who are working for recognised NGOs seeking to help refugees.

    "We urge the Greek authorities to review Seán's case immediately to prevent any further potential breaches of his human rights.

    Urgent reconsideration needs to be given to whether his criminal trial should go ahead at all." Seán Binder added: "The law obliges us to help people in distress at sea. What we did was not heroic, it was normal, and anyone else would do the same in our place. The real victims of European migration policies are the refugees and migrants forced to risk their lives to reach 'Fortress Europe'." Amnesty pointed out that hundreds of people like Sarah and Seán have been criminalised across Europe for doing humanitarian work helping refugees and migrants. In a 2020 report Amnesty detailed the numerous ways in which European governments have deployed restrictive, sanctioning and punitive measures against people who defend refugees and migrants' rights. They do so by misusing laws and policies, including the legally ambiguous and inconsistent rules in the so-called EU Facilitators' Package.

    Dozens of prosecutions have been launched against individuals and NGOs, including Médecins Sans Frontieres, in Italy, Greece, France and Switzerland.

    The Amnesty media statement continued: "Amnesty is deeply concerned that the injustice of the trumped-up charges is being further compounded by a flagrant violation of internationally recognised fair trial standards, in particular the right to not be tried in absentia. The Greek authorities refused to lift Sarah Mardini's travel ban which means that Sarah will not be able to attend her own trial."

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