Rescuers Who Saved Refugees at Sea On Trial in Greece, Face Prison

ATHENS – Sarah Mardini, a Syrian refugee and swimmer whose experiences inspired a Netflix film, and a rescue diver, Seán Binder faced trial in Greece Jan. 10 on charges of helping refugees who faced drowning in the sea trying to reach the country.

Amnesty International said that Greece’s New Democracy government, which is desperately trying to keep up refugees and migrants and charging groups helping them with aiding human smuggling, should drop the charges.

The two are being charged along with 22 others from a search-and-rescue non-governmental organization (NGO) they volunteered to work with, the government indicating that rescuing people at sea trying to reach Greek islands was unlawful.

The 24 defendants, including several foreign nationals, worked for the now defunct NGO Emergency Response Centre International — a search and rescue group operating on the island of Lesbos from 2016-18, said Germany’s state broadcaster Deutsche Welle (DW) in a report on the proceedings.

Mardini, Sean Binder and Nassos Karakitsos, who were arrested in August 2018, have already spent more than three months in pre-trial detention after providing lifesaving assistance to refugees, said DW.

Sean Binderm, one of 24 aid workers and volunteers accused of participating in migrant rescue operations, stands at the gates of the court in Mytilene, on the northeastern Aegean island of Lesbos, Greece, Tuesday, Jan. 10, 2023. A Greek court was set to hear a smuggling-related criminal case Tuesday against a group of 24 aid workers and volunteers. The defendants deny all charges and say all they did was help rescue endangered people. International human rights groups have widely criticized the prosecution. (AP Photo/Panagiotis Balaskas)

Among the charges they face for rescuing people are espionage, people smuggling, belonging to a criminal group and money laundering – felonies which can carry up to 25 years in a Greek prison.

The government has cracked down on human rights groups and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) trying to aid refugees and migrants, claiming that amounts to human trafficking.

But Turkey, which is allowing human smugglers to keep sending them during an essentially-suspended 2016 swap deal with the European Union isn’t being sanctioned and Greece is still holding scores of thousands of refugees and migrants in detention centers and camps, including on Lesbos and other islands.

The trial comes just after a Greek Appeals Court ordered the release of a Somalian migrant who steered a rubber dinghy trying to reach Lesbos that was abandoned by a Turkish smuggler.

Mohammad Hanad Abdi was sentenced to 142 years in prison in 2021 after being convicted following a deadly crossing in the Aegean, a sentence that even many Members of the European Parliament said was Draconian.


“When you say something is criminal, or heroic, you somehow imply that it is abnormal. And helping someone from drowning is the most normal thing you could do,” Binder told DW in a 2021 interview. “What would you do if you see somebody in the water and they’re reaching out to hold you? You would obviously put your hand out and pull them in,” she said.

Greece considers that human smuggling at the same time the government has denied repeated charges of pushing back refugees and migrants and putting them in peril at sea instead of helping them.

“As soon as you’ve done so, you’ve supposedly committed the same crime that I’ve committed. This isn’t a crime and it’s not heroic,” he added.

Glykeria Arapi, Amnesty International’s Director in Greece, told the Germsn station that the case was an attempt by Athens to criminalize humanitarian work and deter search and rescue missions.

“There are too many people under this trial at the court, so there might be a reason for the trial to be adjourned again. But that would only exacerbate the ongoing violations of human rights by extending this farcical prosecution,” she said.

While Binder came back from Ireland, where he lives, for the trial, Mardini is barred under an order prohibiting her from coming back to Greece so she must watch the proceedings from afar.

Michael Phoenix, a researcher supporting Mary Lawlor, the UN’s special rapporteur on human rights defenders, told DW that within the EU, there is no law which explicitly recognizes the work of human rights defenders nor does it effectively protect their rights.

“When human rights defenders are criminalized for acting or working in solidarity with migrants, refugees and asylum-seekers, they’re most often accused of facilitating irregular entry or stay in a state,” he said.


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