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World: Heavily criticised trial of activists begins in Greece

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Lesbos, Greece – A trial of two dozen humanitarian workers has begun in Greece, with charges related to their work with refugees on the island of Lesbos.

Irish-German Sean Binder stands at the yard of a court before his trial in Mytilene port, on the northeastern Aegean island of Lesbos. The activists linked to a migrant search-and-rescue group will be tried in court, facing espionage and other felony charges [Panagiotis Balaskas/AP] © Provided by Al Jazeera Irish-German Sean Binder stands at the yard of a court before his trial in Mytilene port, on the northeastern Aegean island of Lesbos. The activists linked to a migrant search-and-rescue group will be tried in court, facing espionage and other felony charges [Panagiotis Balaskas/AP]

Human rights groups have heavily criticised Greek authorities over the case.

Outside the courthouse on Thursday, friends and family of the defendants, as well as volunteer aid workers, gathered outside in solidarity with those accused.

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Police and secret police patrolled the area as journalists, told by Greek officials that COVID-19 restrictions were in place, were kept out the courthouse.

Proceedings were halted soon after they began because of an apparent lack of Greek-English interpreters. It was unclear when the trial would resume.

Rights groups have called the accusations baseless and an attempt to smear the work of humanitarians performing search-and-rescue operations.

“Until today I was hoping that the charges would be dropped altogether, this trial should never have happened,” Giorgos Kosmopoulos from Amnesty International told Al Jazeera, adding that he has noticed a trend across Europe to criminalise people doing humanitarian work.

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The defendants were members of an NGO, the Emergency Response Center International (ERCI), a search-and-rescue group that operated on the Greek island from 2016 to 2018.

They face up to eight years in prison for state-secret espionage and disclosure and 25 years in jail for charges including smuggling and money laundering.

Thursday’s proceedings today are focused on the spying charges. If the defendants are found guilty, they will be not jailed at this point, but they face jail with the cumulative charges.

Sean Binder, 27, an Irish citizen and rescue diver, is among the defendants and is present in court.

Sarah Mardini, the Syrian competitive swimmer who was hailed as a hero for saving refugees in peril at sea, is another defendant. She is banned from entering Greece and lives in Germany, where she has asylum.

Sean Binder holds a placard during a demonstration by Amnesty International activists in solidarity with Sean Binder and Sarah Mardini, aid workers on trial over refugee rescues, outside the parliament building, in Athens, Greece [Louiza Vradi/Reuters] © Provided by Al Jazeera Sean Binder holds a placard during a demonstration by Amnesty International activists in solidarity with Sean Binder and Sarah Mardini, aid workers on trial over refugee rescues, outside the parliament building, in Athens, Greece [Louiza Vradi/Reuters]

There have been widespread actions of solidarity with those accused this week, in Lesbos and elsewhere in Europe – including protests outside the Greek embassy in Brussels and London demanding the charges be dropped.

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Questions have been asked in the Irish Dail Éireann or the lower house, about the case with Paul Murphy the TD (MP) for Dublin South-West tweeting: “Saving lives is not a crime!”

Along with other Irish politicians, Grace O’Sullivan, an Irish MEP, called on Greek and EU authorities to drop the charges. “We stand with those who save lives,” she said.

Forty-nine organisations, including the Greek Council for Refugees, Oxfam, Dutch Council for Refugees and Legal Centre Lesbos, signed a letter urging Greece to abandon the case.

“In 2019, 171 individuals across 13 European states faced criminalisation and between 2020 and 2021 at least 44 people in Greece faced similar accusations like those against Sarah, Sean and Nassos,” said the letter.

“Criminalisation coincides with the securitisation of borders and worrying instances of pushbacks and collective expulsion, especially at sea.”

In the past year, similar criminal investigations have been launched against volunteers and aid workers who have worked on the Greek islands working with refugees, but none of these have yet gone to trial.

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Sarah Mardini arrived to Lesbos in 2015 as a refugee. When the engine of the refugee boat she was on failed, she and her sister Yusra – an Olympic swimmer – saved 18 fellow passengers by dragging the sinking vessel to safety.

Sarah returned to the island three years later, in 2018, to volunteer on a search-and-rescue mission. There she met Binder, and the two worked to support asylum seekers arriving on Lesbos before they were arrested on a series of charges, including smuggling, espionage, unlawful use of radio frequencies and fraud.

They spent more than 100 days in pre-trial detention before being released on bail in December 2018.

Kosmopoulos said: “In the case of Sarah and Sean, we have two young people who came here on a voluntary basis to help and help they did, they filled up a gap that was existing and instead of being celebrated and honouring their value, they’re being dragged through courts,”

“I found it extremely disturbing that Sarah is not allowed to attend her own trial,” he said.

Outside the courthouse, Claudia Drost from the Free Humanitarian initiative said: “It brings back a lot of memories from 2018, humanitarians being on trial.”

Drost has campaigned alongside other humanitarians and activists for the charges to be dropped.

“Here we are again on the same island of despair, fighting another battle in addition to the refugee issue too,” she said.

As Binder arrived, he expressed frustration.

“I feel angry that the legal requirement to help people in distress at sea is being criminalised right now. I’m angry because there is not a shred of evidence against us,” he said. “I’m angry because we’ve had to wait three years now for this prosecution to take place and it’s very likely that the prosecution will not continue because the indictment is so poorly constructed.”

He feared being “left in limbo for years to come”.

“Today there is no more search and rescue happening on the island of Lesvos and that’s precisely because of criminalisation,” he said.

“What I ask Greece to do, what I ask the European Union to do, is only what it has expressed it would do, which is respect its own laws. Every inch of international maritime law requires us to rescue boats in distress, the universal declaration of human rights requires us to observe the right to seek asylum.”

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