Two activists face jail in Greece for rescuing migrants at sea

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.

Human Rights Watch (HRW) have described the proceedings as “life-saving on trial”.

The NGO said in a statement that the trial on the island of Lesbos relates to “humanitarian activities that are protected under international human rights law and Greek law” and called for authorities to “stop criminalising humanitarian rescuers”.

They said they are on trial for their “alleged affiliations” with the search-and-rescue Emergency Response Centre International (ERCI) group and that the charges against them misrepresent the group’s operations as a smuggling ring and its fundraising activities as money laundering.

The espionage charges are meanwhile “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,” HRW said.

“However, as the police report acknowledged, the radio channels are not encrypted and can be accessed by anyone with VHF radio. The positions of the vessels are published in real-time on commercial ship-tracking websites,” they added.

Binder, an Irish-German volunteer, and Mardini, a Syrian human rights worker with refugee status, were arrested and detained for over three months in 2018. They deny all charges against them and say they were doing nothing more than helping rescue people.

HRW has called on prosecutors to request their acquittal.

Aid workers and volunteers have increasingly found themselves in the crosshairs of Greek authorities.

“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.”