Refugees and supporters demand the release of two rescuers, among them Sarah Mardini, who were arrested for smuggling on Lesbos island, during a symbolic protest in Syntagma Square in central Athens, Greece, 1 September 2018 | Photo: EPA/ORESTIS PANAGIOTOU
Refugees and supporters demand the release of two rescuers, among them Sarah Mardini, who were arrested for smuggling on Lesbos island, during a symbolic protest in Syntagma Square in central Athens, Greece, 1 September 2018 | Photo: EPA/ORESTIS PANAGIOTOU

Two aid workers who were involved in migrant rescues will go on trial in Greece this week on charges of spying and disclosing state secrets. Human rights groups have described the case as "farcical."

Two volunteers who spotted and helped boats in distress from the Greek island of Lesbos will go on trial starting 18 November on misdemeanor charges that can carry a sentence of up to eight years.

The duo -- Sarah Mardini, a 25-year-old Syrian refugee, and Seán Binder, a 27-year-old German national -- also face felony charges including people smuggling, fraud, being part of a criminal organization and money laundering. If brought to trial, the charges could lead to up to 25 years in prison.

Sarah originally arrived in Lesbos in 2015. When the engine of the migrant boat she was on failed, Sarah and her sister saved 18 fellow passengers by dragging the sinking boat to safety. Later, she returned to Greece and went on to volunteer at a Greek search and rescue organization, where she met Seán, a trained diver.

Sarah and Seán were arrested in 2018 on numerous charges including smuggling, espionage, unlawful use of radio frequencies, and fraud. They spent more than 100 days in prison before being released on bail in December 2018.

Amnesty International calls charges baseless

Amnesty International Regional Director for Europe Nils Muižnieks said in a statement that the charges are "unfair and baseless." "Sarah and Seán did lifesaving humanitarian work, spotting boats in distress off Greek shores and providing those onboard with blankets, water and a warm welcome," Muižnieks said.

"The charges they face are farcical and should never have come to trial. This emblematic case demonstrates how far the Greek authorities will go to deter people from helping refugees and migrants. Stopping rescue operations doesn't stop people from making dangerous journeys, it simply makes those journeys more perilous," he said.

Amnesty International said human rights law firm Leigh Day stated there have been several serious breaches of international human rights law in Seán's case. Sean approached Leigh Day for an opinion on the legality under international law of his arrest, pre-trial detention and proposed trial for alleged offences committed whilst volunteering on search-and-rescue missions for Emergency Response Centre International.

"We urge the Greek authorities to review Seán's case immediately to prevent any further potential breaches of his human rights," said Tessa Gregory, a partner at Leigh Day.

"The law obliges us to help people in distress at sea," Binder said. What we did was not heroic, it was normal, and anyone else would do the same in our place," he said.

Criminalization of humanitarian work

Amnesty International said hundreds of people like Sarah and Seán have been criminalized across Europe for doing humanitarian work helping refugees and migrants.

In a 2020 report, it detailed the numerous ways in which European governments have deployed restrictive, sanctioning and punitive measures against people who defend refugees and migrants' rights.

It said they do so by misusing laws and policies, including the legally ambiguous and inconsistent rules in the so-called EU Facilitators' Package.

Dozens of prosecutions have been launched against individuals and NGOs, including Médecins Sans Frontieres, in Italy, Greece, France and Switzerland.

"Amnesty is deeply concerned that the injustice of the trumped-up charges is being further compounded by a flagrant violation of internationally recognised fair trial standards, in particular the right to not be tried in absentia," said the statement from Amnesty International. "The Greek authorities refused to lift Sarah Mardini's travel ban, which means that Sarah will not be able to attend her own trial."

 

More articles