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Greece: Life-Saving on Trial

Stop Criminalizing Humanitarian Rescuers

Sean Binder and Sarah Mardini, search-and-rescue volunteers who helped migrants and asylum seekers at sea, were detained and face trial in Greece on unfounded charges. © Private, 2018

(Athens) – Two humanitarian activists who provided life-saving aid to migrants and asylum seekers trying to reach Greece will face charges in a trial scheduled for November 18, 2021, Human Rights Watch said today. The trial at the Mytilene Misdemeanor Court on the Greek island of Lesbos is related to humanitarian activities that are protected under international human rights law and Greek law.

Human Rights Watch analyzed the case against the two, Sarah Mardini and Sean Binder, who also face a related felony investigation. They are among 24 defendants on trial for their alleged affiliations with Emergency Response Center International (ERCI), a nonprofit search-and-rescue group that operated on Lesbos and in Greek waters from 2016 to 2018. The prosecution and investigation has been described in a European Parliament report as “currently the largest case of criminalization of solidarity in Europe.” Prosecutors should request their acquittal.

“The Greek authorities’ misuse of the criminal justice system to harass these humanitarian rescuers seems designed to deter future rescue efforts, which will only put lives at risk,” said Bill Van Esveld, associate children’s rights director at Human Rights Watch. “The slipshod investigation and absurd charges, including espionage, against people engaged in life-saving work reeks of politically motivated prosecution.”

Human Rights Watch analysis concluded that the charges perversely misrepresent the group’s search-and-rescue operations as a smuggling crime ring, even though the law they allegedly violated (Law 4251 of 2014) explicitly provides that the offense does not cover helping asylum seekers. Legitimate fundraising activities by the nonprofit organization are mischaracterized as money laundering. The search-and-rescue group was registered as a nongovernmental organization and regularly cooperated with the relevant Greek authorities on rescue missions.

The police announcement at the time of the arrests in August 2018 claimed, nonsensically, that the crimes were related to “organized migrant trafficking rings” with knowledge of “specific refugee flows.” Trafficking involves coercion and deception for the purposes of exploitation, for which police provided no evidence. The 86-page police investigation file had blatant factual errors, including claims that some of the accused participated in rescue missions on multiple dates when they were not in Greece.

Mardini and Binder were detained in Greece for 107 days in 2018. Mardini had traveled by boat from Turkey to Greece in 2015 as an asylum seeker from Syria. When the engine failed, she and her younger sister Yusra, who swam for the Refugee team at the 2016 and 2020 Summer Olympics, helped save others on board by swimming and keeping the boat afloat until it reached Lesbos.

Mardini, then 23, was enrolled at Bard College Berlin and took leave from her studies for a semester to return to Lesbos as a volunteer with the search-and-rescue group. She was arrested on August 21, 2018, when she was about to fly back home. Binder was arrested the same day when he went to the police station where colleagues said Mardini had been taken. They were released on bail in December 2018.

Human Rights Watch urged the embassies of the foreign defendants’ home countries, including Germany, to send observers to the trial. While Mardini and Binder were in pre-trial detention, 32 members of the European Parliament wrote to the Greek justice minister and called for their release.

Mardini and Binder, as well as other defendants, are charged with espionage based on the police report that their efforts to identify migrant boats in distress included monitoring Greek Coast Guard and Frontex radio channels and vessels. However, as the police report acknowledged, the radio channels are not encrypted and can be accessed by anyone with a VHF radio. The positions of the vessels are published in real time on commercial ship-tracking websites. The espionage charge is also based on smartphone app communications, but the police report includes surveillance of communications on dates outside the time frame covered by the warrant.

Mardini and Binder are also charged with fraud for allegedly using a fake military license plate to enter restricted-access military areas on Lesbos where asylum seekers and migrants sometimes disembarked. But it is unclear how the volunteers could have pretended that they were driving a military vehicle, because witnesses said, and photographs confirmed, that the car prominently displayed logos of their rescue group. The police report does not include any evidence that they tried to enter restricted military areas. They stated that they were unaware of any fake plates, which were allegedly found beneath the vehicle’s regular plates, and that they had regularly spoken to police while in the vehicle.

The summonses also state that Mardini and Binder will be tried for using radio devices without a license, but the charge is under an article of Law 4070 of 2012, which was repealed in 2020. Human Rights Watch reviewed the summonses for the defendants, which had pages missing.

Other defendants face different or additional charges. The indictment alleges that six defendants sought to “ensure” migrants’ access to the minimum “reception conditions” for asylum seekers guaranteed under Greek law, “as well as the right to apply for international protection in an EU country.” It is not clear how such actions could be crimes, except that they were allegedly undertaken to assist the search-and-rescue group, which the indictment portrays as a criminal organization.

Mardini had intended to attend the misdemeanor trial but is barred from Greece and will be represented by a lawyer, she told Human Rights Watch via telephone. “We can’t volunteer again, we are scared,” she said. “At least we’re out of detention now but we want this to be over. You get so exhausted. This has been a dark three years.” She was held in solitary confinement in a high security prison in 2018 and received death threats after her release. Binder will attend the trial, he told Human Rights Watch.

The maximum prison sentence that can be served for convictions on misdemeanor charges is 8 years. A separate felony case, which is still being investigated, includes charges of membership in a criminal organization, money laundering, and fraud, each of which carries 5 to 10 years in prison, as well as facilitation of illegal entry to foreign citizens, punishable by 10 to 20 years in prison for each migrant.

Other defendants include Nassos Karakitsos, a trained rescuer, and Panos Moraitis, who founded the search-and-rescue group, and who were also held in prolonged pretrial detention in 2018. The arrests forced the group to cease its operations, including maritime search and rescue, and providing medical care and non-formal education to migrants and asylum seekers. There is currently no search-and-rescue organization on Lesbos with “a boat in the water” and permission to operate, Binder told Human Rights Watch.

So far in 2021, 24 people have drowned in the Eastern Mediterranean trying to enter Europe, including four children and a woman who died on October 26 in a shipwreck with two others missing. The Greek authorities have unlawfully pushed back thousands of would-be asylum seekers and migrants to Turkey from the Aegean Sea.

In 2020, Greece introduced new rules on registration for nongovernmental groups that prompted intervention by three United Nations special rapporteurs, the Council of Europe’s Expert Council on NGO Law, and its commissioner for human rights. Several groups unable to meet the requirements were forced to suspend their humanitarian activities, a European Parliament report found. Greek police officials have announced abusive criminal investigations against other humanitarian workers, whom law enforcement and political officials appear to have targeted with “smear campaigns,” the UN special rapporteur on human rights defenders stated in October 2021.

In September, the Council of Europe human rights commissioner urged the Greek parliament to reconsider legislative proposals that hinder “life-saving” work and human rights monitoring by nongovernmental groups. The bill, adopted on September 3, introduces restrictions and conditions on nongovernmental groups active in areas where the Greek Coast Guard operates, at the threat of heavy sanctions and fines.

“Greek law enforcement authorities are not just flouting the law at the borders in their violent treatment of migrants and asylum seekers, they are also abusing the law to prosecute Greek and other European citizens for trying to save lives,” Van Esveld said. “Greek and European officials should champion humanitarians and denounce the abusive prosecutions that have shut down life-saving work.”

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