Four Refugee Charity Workers Facing Trial Freed in Greece

FILE - In this Friday, May 4, 2018 file photo migrants and refugees wait outside the European Asylum Support Service offices inside the camp of Moria on the northeastern Aegean island of Lesbos, Greece. (AP Photo/Petros Giannakouris, File)

ATHENS — After withering criticism from human rights groups over their detention, four members of a charity working with refugees and migrants in Greece who were charged with human smuggling have been released pending trial, their lawyer said.

They included Syrian refugee Sara Mardini, who gained international attention when she and her sister — both competitive swimmers — reached the Greek island of Lesbos in 2015, swimming for their lives after the inflatable boat they had left Turkey in started taking on water.

The four face charges including belonging to a criminal organization, money laundering, espionage and breaches of immigration laws. They deny wrongdoing.

The release for now comes a month after Human Rights Watch said charges of human trafficking against two who were helping rescue refugees and migrants on Greek islands was baseless, after reviewing court records and other documents.

Mardini, 23, and Sean Binder, 24, of Germany, were detained for three months along with two Greeks, including Nassos Karakitsos, 37. Their detention followed a police investigation and a prosecutor’s accusations that HRW claimed misrepresent humanitarian search and rescue operations as people smuggling by an organized crime ring.

“Greek judicial authorities should drop the baseless accusations and release them from pretrial detention,” the group said.

“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, Senior Children’s Rights Researcher at Human Rights Watch. “These charges should be dropped, and the activists should be freed.”

Mardini started a new life in Germany but later returned to Lesbos, a key point of entry for migrants trying to reach Europe, to help others arriving there and worked with the Emergency Response Center International charity. Her arrest on severe criminal charges prompted international concern.

Mardini’s sister Yusra was a member of the refugee team at the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Summer Olympics.

The charity members’ lawyer, Haris Petsikas, said their bail had been paid, paving the way for them to get out until returning for a trial although all four were released from prison pending their trial after paying bail. He said Mardini and Binder of Germany were free to leave Greece but had no immediate plans to do so. The other two suspects, both Greeks, also paid bail but were forbidden to leave the country.

Petsikas said the trial was not expected to start for at least six to eight months. Greek police claimed the four allegedly facilitated the illegal entry of migrants to Greece for profit, to raise donations or subsidies for the charity, had advance notification of smuggling boats’ routes and numbers of passengers and illegally monitored Greek and European coast guard radio traffic.

Most migrants reaching Lesbos by sea make the journey in leaky boats after paying a high price to smuggling gangs.

Petsikas said the four being released from pre-trial detention was a good sign. “The evidence that was provided (to authorities) negates the charges,” he said.

Mardini and Binder, the son of a Vietnamese refugee, began volunteering in search and rescue operations on the island of Lesbos in 2017 with a non-profit organization, Emergency Response Center International (ERCI).

Greek police arrested Mardini on Aug. 21, in the airport on Lesbos as she was about to fly to Germany to begin her second year of undergraduate studies at Bard College Berlin. Upon hearing of Mardini’s arrest, Binder went to visit her in police custody on Lesbos, where he was also arrested.
Karakitsos, an employee of ERCI, was arrested on Aug. 28. Another employee, Mirella Alexou, and Panos Moraitis, who founded the group in 2015, subsequently turned themselves in to the police.

Mardini had traveled by boat from Turkey to Greece in 2015. The engine broke down, and she and her younger sister, who went on to participate in the Olympics in 2016, helped save others on board by swimming and pulling the boat to Lesbos.

HRW said it looked at 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.

(Material from the Associated Press was used in this report)