In a move denounced by critics as “farcical,” Greece’s Conservative New Democracy government has put on trial more than two dozen aid workers helping and rescuing refugees and migrants to reach the country.
There are some 100,000 in detention camps around Greece, including on five islands near Turkey, which let human traffickers keep sending them after they reached that country from their homelands where they fled war, hardship and economic strife.
The trial began Nov. 18 with the defendants facing a line of charges including espionage, forgery and the unlawful use of radio frequencies to find refugees whom they said they were saving, not trafficking.
Human rights groups have condemned the charges as being politically motivated as the government has become hardline against refugees and migrants who began pouring into the country in 2015.
In a report, the BBC noted the trial is being held on the island of Lesbos, where most of the refugees and migrants being detained on five islands are being held after it became a symbol of the lingering crisis.
Among the 24 defendants, 17 of whom are foreign nationals, is Syrian refugee Sarah Mardini, sister of the Olympic swimmer Yusra Mardini, who both i 2i015 dragged a refugee boat to safety when the engine failed.
Sarah Mardini has been barred from coming to Greece to defend herself and is watching the trial from Germany, where she was given asylum, the report noted, the focus now on the Greek government.
Prosecutors contend that the aid workers affiliated with a search and rescue group, monitored the Greek Coast Guard’s radio channels and used a vehicle with fake military licence plates to enter restricted areas on Lesbos.
If found guilty they could face five-year prison sentences and some are under investigation for other charges, including human smuggling, which brings sentences up to 25 years.
Sean Binder, an Irish aid worker facing trial, told the Irish broadcaster RTÉ: “I am happy to defend myself, I know I did nothing wrong, and we can prove that.”
“I’m being charged with crimes that I am supposed to have committed a year before I was ever on the island,” he added.
Nils Muižnieks, Director of Amnesty International’s European Regional Office, said in a statement: “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 added.