Human Rights Watch Rips Greece for Charging Refugee Rescuers

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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)

The activist group Human Rights Watch said charges of human trafficking against two foreign volunteers who were helping rescue refugees and migrants on Greek islands was baseless, after reviewing court records and other documents.

Sarah Mardini, 23, and Sean Binder, 24, have been detained for more than two months along with two Greeks, including Nassos Karakitsos, 37, who was arrested a week after Mardini and Binder. 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, a Syrian refugee, and Binder, a German national and the son of a Vietnamese refugee, began volunteering in search and rescue operations on the island of Lesbos in 2017 with a nonprofit organization, Emergency Response Center International (ERCI).

Greek police arrested Mardini on August 21, 2018, 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 August 28. Another employee, Mirella Alexou, and Panos Moraitis, who founded the group in 2015, subsequently turned themselves in to the police. Alexou was released on bail on November 2.

Human Rights Watch was unable to obtain detailed information about the accusations against them. Mardini is detained in Athens, while Binder, Karakitsos, and Moraitis are detained on the island of Chios. ERCI, a registered nonprofit organization in Greece that also provided primary medical care and non-formal education programs for refugee and migrant children has ceased operations.

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.