28th Mar 2023

UN envoy criticises Greece for human right defenders crackdown

  • The Hellenic Coast Guard stopped 32 boats carrying 1108 people in the first week of this year, a 125 percent increase compared to the first week of 2022. (Photo: Freedom House)
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A UN human rights official has spoken out against the Greek state for cracking down on people helping asylum seekers.

Although dated from December, the official communication was only released to the public on Thursday (9 March) by Mary Lawlor, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Human Rights Defenders.

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In it, she raises "serious concern" on criminal investigations opened against four people who help migrants and asylum seekers in Greece, "as well as threats, smears and other intimidatory acts targeting them."

This includes leaks by state authorities to the Greek media that seeks to conflate human rights work with human trafficking in the public eye, she said. Lawlor will be presenting her findings to the UN human rights council next week.

Among the named rights defenders under reported Greek criminal investigation is Panayote Dimitras, Tommy Olsen, Madi Williamson and Ruhi Akhtar. All are allegedly being charged with various alleged offences for their work in helping others.

Athens under the centre-right leadership of Kyriakos Mitsotakis has for years targeted NGOs it claims are working with smugglers.

Already in 2020, Greek migration minister Notis Mitarachi signalled out Tommy Olsen, who runs the Aegean Boat Report to a group of reporters.

The Norwegian-based NGO documents abuse, including illegal pushbacks denied by Greek authorities. It says Greece has push backed almost 55,000 people so far this year.

Olsen stands accused of facilitating the entry of people into Greece in cooperation with Dimitras, founder of the Greek Helsinki Monitor.

Dimitras was indicted for alerting Greek authorities, including the police and coast guard, of the arrival of migrants on the Greek islands of Kos and Farmakonisi on July 13, 2021. He has since been banned from leaving the country and for carrying out any work related to his NGO.

Human Rights Watch had earlier this year demanded Greek authorities drop the respective probes and then accused Athens of attempting to silence and intimidate people who expose abuse.

This comes on top of some 24 aid workers recently put on trial in Lesbos, a Greek island, for alleged offences ranging from spying to forgery.

Similar comments were made by Dunja Mijatović, Europe's commissioner of human rights, who said that rights defenders in Greece are working in a hostile environment amid smear campaigns that have further eroded civic space in the country.

Greece continues to deny it carries out illegal pushbacks and says, in a response letter to Lawlor, that the case has been forwarded to the prosecutor.

There are some 35 cases in Greece last year against people who either face criminal or administrative charges for helping migrants in need, according to the Platform for International Cooperation on Undocumented Migrants (Picum).

In a statement released, also on Thursday, Picum said over 100 people throughout the EU last year faced criminal or administrative proceedings in the EU for acts of solidarity with migrants.

Most of those are in Italy with 48, followed by Greece with 35, twelve in Poland, and a total of seven cases reported in Malta, France, Germany, Spain and Lithuania.

"These numbers are just the tip of the iceberg," said Picum's Marta Gionco, in a statement. She noted that many cases go unreported because of fears of further victimisation, especially when those criminalised are migrants themselves.

NGO rebuts Athens' charge of aiding people smugglers

Greek migration minister Notis Mitarachi presented video testimonies of migrants citing Norwegian NGO Aegean Boat Report as useful in their efforts to get to Greece. Mitarachi said such NGOs contribute to "illegal migratory flows". Aegean Boat Report disputes the account.

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