Former 'heroes' on trial for rescuing people at sea

The first day of a trial of activists began today in Greece with 24 humanitarians facing up to 25 years in jail

Sean Binder during a demonstration by Amnesty International activists in solidarity with the 24 aid workers facing charges over refugee rescues, which has been described as 'life-saving on trial'. Reuters

Twenty-four humanitarians went on trial in Greece today accused of various charges including, human trafficking, money laundering, fraud and espionage for their involvement in helping migrants stranded at sea during the height of the refugee crisis in the EU country.

After three years living under the spectre of criminal proceedings, they will have to wait longer for their fate after the first day of trial was adjourned.

Proceedings were halted soon after they started because of an apparent lack of Greek-English interpreters. It was later postponed altogether after the trial chamber found that it was not within its jurisdiction and referred the case to a higher court.

Among those on trial are Irish law student Sean Binder and Syrian refugee Sarah Mardini.

The pair were both members of Emergency Response Centre International, a not-for-profit search-and-rescue group that operated on the Greek island from 2016 to 2018. They face between eight and 25 years in jail if convicted on all charges.

Ms Mardini said the delay was frustrating but that she was optimistic over the outcome. Lawyers for Mr Binder and Ms Mardini said said the delays were predictable, but not what they wanted.

"We want to have a real judgment of the accusations. From the first moment and until now we declare that we are totally innocent and we want this story to end for the people accused,” Haris Petsikos said after the adjournment.

Aid workers Sean Binder, Leoni Ioannidou and Nassos Karakitsos, who face trial over refugee rescues, lawyer Haris Petsikos and Mr Binder’s mother Fanny, outside a courthouse on the Greek island of Lesbos on November 18, 2021. Reuters

Human rights groups, including Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have heavily criticised the case brought by the Greek authorities, calling the proceedings “life-saving on trial” and calling on legislators to “stop criminalising humanitarian rescuers”.

Part of the allegations include that while on the Greek island of Lesbos, a central stopping point on the migrant trail from the Middle East, the accused monitored coastguard radio channels and vessels to gain advance notification of the location of smugglers’ boats.

In an HRW report denouncing the trial, the organisation said the charges against them misrepresent the humanitarian efforts to save lives as a smuggling ring.

"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 wrote.

Mr Binder and Ms Mardini were both arrested and jailed in pre-trial detention for more than three months in 2018 before being released on bail.

Now living in Germany, Ms Mardini, who herself arrived in Lesbos from Syria as a refugee in 2015, first hit the headlines that year when she and her sister, Yusra, were internationally lauded for their life-saving bravery. After the engine failed on the refugee-carrying boat they were on, the two sisters kept the vessel and the 18 people on board afloat by swimming and dragging it to safety. Yusra Mardini went on to swim for the Refugee team at the 2016 and 2020 Olympics and a film about the sisters' lives is currently in production.

Mr Binder travelled from London, where he has been living for the past two years, to face the proceedings in Athens. But Ms Mardini, who is based in Berlin, was not allowed to go owing to an existing travel ban against her entering Greece.

Sven Spannekrebs, a swimming coach who formerly trained Yusra Mardini, told The National that all the defendants had wanted to be there in person to prove their innocence.

“No one knows exactly how it will go but what we do know is that Sean and Sarah did nothing wrong. I spoke to them at length about the so-called evidence, and they explained how they worked in the camps and on rescues and that they always worked in an open and co-ordinated way with all local authorities in Greece,” he said.

“For me it is an obvious no. There is nothing that has happened for anyone to go to jail. But we’ve seen what happened in these other places where people ended up in jail.”

The case is the most recent indictment of the growing clampdown on activists who have rescued and aided refugees as they journeyed through Europe.

According to the European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights, Germany, Italy, Malta, the Netherlands, Spain and Greece have initiated 58 investigations and legal proceedings since 2016 against private entities involved in search and rescue.

“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.

According to the organisation, 24 people have drowned in the Eastern Mediterranean trying to enter Europe in 2021, including four children and a woman. Contrary to international law and convention, thousands of asylum-seekers have been pushed back by Greek authorities this year.

Updated: November 18th 2021, 2:26 PM