24th Sep 2023

Greece seeking possible jail for aid workers in flawed case

  • Aid workers who rescued people from drowning are facing possible lengthy prison sentences in Greece (Photo: Proactiva Open Arms)
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A Greek trial on Tuesday (10 January) against 24 humanitarian aid workers who helped prevent refugees and asylum seekers from drowning has been postponed until later this week.

A court in Athens is instead set to hear procedural objections from the defendants lawyers on Friday, according to the Greek-based legal aid NGO, Fenix.

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"The prosecution has made mistake after mistake, they've violated our human rights," said Sean Binder, one of the defendants, on Tuesday following the court hearing.

"We'll find out on Friday whether we get the rule of law or the rule of flaws," he said.

The case, which has been dragging on for years, has been described by civil society as part of a wider criminalisation of humanitarian relief, following a similar crackdown on charitable search and rescue operations in Italy and elsewhere.

Some 24 are facing trial in Mytilene, on the island of Lesbos, on misdemeanour charges related to Emergency Response Center International (ERCI), a registered NGO that had in the past assisted the Greek Coast Guard in rescue operations.

Three of the defendants, Sarah Mardini, Sean Binder and Nassos Karakitsos, are also standing trial for espionage and forgery, which can carry up to eight years in prison.

They are also facing another ongoing investigation over people smuggling, fraud, membership of a criminal organisation, and money laundering, which carry a maximum sentence of 20 years.

A Syrian refugee, Mardini is the sister of the Olympic swimmer Yusra Mardini.

The Syrian duo saved 18 fellow passengers by pulling a sinking boat, which had left Turkey towards Greece, to safety in 2015.

Mardini, who received refugee status in Germany, then returned to Lesbos in 2016 to help other refugees arriving on the island.

She was arrested in 2018, along with Greek national Nassos Karakitsos and German national Sean Binder, who had been coordinating search and rescues on Lesbos.

"Often times I did little more than offer a smile to people in distress because the vast majority of asylum seekers are survivors," he said late last year at a European Parliament press conference.

"But at times, we did have to help folks at the risk of drowning during their treacherous journeys and for these efforts I spent over three and half months in pre-trial prison," he said.

Binder, who attended the Athens court on Tuesday, also said that the prosecution's case is riddled with errors.

He said some of the defendants did not receive indictments and that other indictments either had missing papers or failed to state alleged offences.

Others still were not allowed to go to their own trial in a case that has been dragging on for years "so that prosecution is effectively a form of persecution," he said.

This includes Sarah Mardini, who was unable to attend her trial in the past, given a Greek imposed travel ban that prevents her from entering the country.

Similar comments were made by Human Rights Watch, an NGO.

They said that indictments sent to the accused included numerous charges.

But the indictments left defendants guessing because they were listed from 1 to 24 with no explanation of whom each number represents.

In a statement, Bill Van Esveld, associate children's rights director at Human Rights Watch, said that "the case is really an indictment of the Greek authorities, who are going after people for saving lives the authorities didn't want them to save."

The trial against the 24 humanitarian workers had been previously adjourned in November 2021 after the prosecution had filed the case before the wrong court.

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