Drop all charges against refugee aid workers, UN tells Greece

Syrian swimmer Sara Mardini and several other foreign and Greek refugee rescue workers are on trial in Lesbos.

A protester hangs a banner outside a court in Mytilene, on the northeastern Aegean island of Lesbos
Defendants argue they were doing nothing more than assisting people whose lives were at risk [Panagiotis Balaskas/AP Photo]

The United Nations has called on Greece to drop all charges against 24 migrant rescue workers accused of espionage, as hearings of a long-delayed trial resumed on Friday on the island of Lesbos.

Those on trial include prominent Syrian human rights worker Sarah Mardini, a refugee and competitive swimmer whose sister Yusra Mardini was part of the refugee swimming team at the Olympic Games in 2016 and 2021.

The Syrian siblings were celebrated for their efforts to save 18 fellow passengers when they helped drag their sinking refugee dinghy to safety on the journey from Turkey to Greece in 2015. Their story was later turned into the Netflix film – The Swimmers.

“Trials like these are deeply concerning because they criminalise life-saving work and set a dangerous precedent. Indeed, there has already been a chilling effect,” UN rights office spokeswoman Liz Throssell told reporters at a briefing in Geneva, calling for “all charges against all defendants” to be dropped.

The Greek and foreign defendants argue they were doing nothing more than assisting people whose lives were at risk.

Their lawyers have objected to the procedures followed by the prosecution, which could lead to the court on the island of Lesbos ordering prosecutors to refile the case.

Mardini, who was not present for Friday’s hearing, and fellow volunteer Sean Binder, who was in Lesbos to attend the trial, spent more than three months in jail on the Greek island after their 2018 arrest on misdemeanour charges that included espionage, forgery and unlawful use of radio frequencies.

The two are also under investigation for felony offences, but prosecutors have not brought any of the more serious charges against them.

Described in a European Parliament report as “the largest case of criminalisation of solidarity” in Europe, the trial was initially set to proceed in 2021 but was postponed over procedural issues. It resumed on Tuesday.

Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights Dunja Mijatovic said in a statement on Thursday that the “targeting human rights defenders and individuals engaged in acts of solidarity is both incompatible with states’ international obligations and has a chilling effect on human rights work”.

The trial and other prosecutions of human rights workers, smear campaigns, cumbersome registration procedures for non-governmental organisations and pressure on journalists had “undermined the protection of human rights and shrunk the civic space” in Greece, she said.

“I urge the Greek authorities to ensure that human rights defenders and journalists can work safely and freely, by providing an enabling environment for their work and publicly recognising their important role in a democratic society,” Mijatovic said.

Harlem Desir, senior vice president of the International Rescue Committee’s Europe affairs, called on the European Union to “forge a new approach” when dealing with asylum seekers who attempt irregular crossings.

The Greek trial is “emblematic of a broader trend towards the EU disrupting people’s journeys and deterring people from reaching Europe, often leaving them trapped in dire conditions or at risk at sea, rather than protecting them along their journeys or providing routes to safety”, he said.

Greece, which saw about a million people cross to its shores from neighbouring Turkey at the height of a refugee crisis in 2015, has clamped down on migration, erecting a fence along much of its land border with Turkey and increasing sea patrols near its islands.

Greek officials say they have a strict but fair migration policy.

They also deny, despite increasing evidence to the contrary, conducting illegal summary deportations of people arriving on Greek territory without allowing them to apply for asylum, a procedure known as “pushbacks”.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies