An Iraqi woman stands behind a fence as a police officer stands guard at Amygdaleza pre-departure center for refugees and migrants who are asking to return in their countries, in Athens, Greece. Credit: EPA/YIANNIS KOLESIDIS
An Iraqi woman stands behind a fence as a police officer stands guard at Amygdaleza pre-departure center for refugees and migrants who are asking to return in their countries, in Athens, Greece. Credit: EPA/YIANNIS KOLESIDIS

Human Rights Watch has called on Greek authorities to release a number of activists who have worked to rescue asylum seekers and migrants at sea and are now facing criminal accusations that "appear entirely unfounded."

Criminal charges of illegal human trafficking brought by Greek prosecutors against activists for their efforts to rescue migrants and asylum seekers at sea ''appear entirely unfounded'', Human Rights Watch has denounced. The organization said in a statement that it has examined court records and other documents in the cases of two of the four activists currently in pretrial detention. 


Detained activists 

The two foreign volunteers Sarah Mardini, 23, and Sean Binder, 24, have been detained for more than two months. Two Greek nationals are also in pretrial detention, including Nassos Karakitsos, 37, who was arrested a week after Mardini and Binder. Their detention followed a police investigation and charges filed by a prosecutor that ''misrepresent humanitarian search and rescue operations as people smuggling by an organized crime ring'', wrote HRW in a statement. 

Greek judicial authorities ''should drop the baseless accusations and release them from pretrial detention''. ''Accusations of money laundering, people smuggling, and espionage appear no more than an effort to criminalize humanitarian activism on behalf of refugees and migrants in Greece'', said Bill Van Esveld, a senior children's rights researcher at Human Rights Watch. ''These charges should be dropped, and the activists should be freed''. 

The analysis on HRW on the cases 

Human Rights Watch said it examined the police reports, accusations, and other court documents in the case against Mardini and Binder, and spoke to their lawyers, other humanitarian volunteers, former classmates, and university administrators who know them. 

"The felony accusations claim that Mardini and Binder's efforts to conduct search and rescue operations in the Aegean Sea and to help people who arrived on the island of Lesbos amount to people smuggling, even though the law they allegedly violated (Law 4251 of 2014) excludes helping asylum seekers," HRW said.

Detaining rescuers could have a "chilling effect" on other humanitarian activists at a time when the number of people drowning at sea between Turkey and Greece is on the rise, Human Rights Watch warned. 

"The case against rescue volunteers in Greece is part of a distressing pattern of attacks across the European Union on humanitarian efforts to help migrants and refugees," Van Esveld said. "Solidarity with people fleeing persecution, war, and serious human rights violations should be encouraged and celebrated, not criminalized."
 

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