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GREECE: Refugee activists still at risk of years in jail for saving lives at sea

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UPDATE (18/11/2021): The trial against Seán Binder, Sarah Mardini and Nassos Karakitsos was postponed, after a three-member panel of judges on the Aegean island of Lesbos – where the alleged crimes are said to have occurred – referred the case to a court of appeals, citing lack of jurisdiction. It is unclear when the higher tribunal will convene.

I’m very angry and very disappointed”, Seán Binder told The Guardian after the hearing on 18 November, from which the media were banned. “This just means months of more limbo as we wait for justice. I may not have been found guilty today but effectively I’m still not free. The criminalisation of humanitarianism continues.

As stated by Mary Lawlor, UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights Defenders, “a guilty verdict, which could put them in prison for 25 years, would set a dangerous precedent of making criminals of people who support the rights of migrants and refugees across Greece and the European Union. It would lead to more deaths at sea and could see others put behind bars for human rights work.

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Open letter published by Free Humanitarians on 11/11/2021

After more than three years of uncertainty, the trial against Seán Binder, Sarah Mardini and Nassos Karakitsos, members of an organisation saving the lives of many refugees arriving on the Greek islands, is finally taking place. For many people these dangerous journeys by sea were, and continue to be, the only way of seeking safety in the EU and avoiding war and persecution in their home countries. For many years now, authorities were unable (and often unwilling) to respond to the large number of refugees arriving in Greece and many organisations and individuals stepped in to assist. The humanitarian work of people like Seán, Sarah and Nassos has been absolutely essential as at least 1,761 people have lost their lives or went missing on the Eastern Mediterranean sea since 2014.

Greek authorities are criminalising organisations and people like Seán, Sarah and Nassos portraying them as criminals and putting them at risk of years in jail. Criminalisation is a distressing tactic that is being used across Europe and continues in Greece up to today. In 2018, Seán and Sarah spent more than 100 days in a high-security jail and have been accused of people smuggling, being part of a criminal organisation, espionage and money laundering, carrying a sentence of up to 25 years in jail. On 18 November 2021, after three long years of uncertainty, court proceedings will finally start, only addressing those charges that are considered a misdemeanour.

A lack of evidence and a series of procedural mistakes indicate that this trial will not only be politically motivated but could violate the principles of a fair trial. The defendants (and their lawyers) have not been timely or properly informed about the exact charges and accusations against them. After three years only a Writ of Summons has been provided related to the misdemeanour charges (not the more serious charges). This Writ of Summons is abstract, confusing and is missing essential information and is even missing a page. For the charges related to the facilitation of illegal entry the prosecutor has neglected to apply the humanitarian exemption in Greek migration law. There are additional concerns that independent monitoring of the trial will not be made possible because of covid-19 restrictions.

These charges are exceptionally serious but are far from uncommon as Greek authorities continue to criminalise organisations that assist and support refugees. In September 2020 authorities announced criminal cases against 33 individuals working for different organisations. In July 2021 authorities leaked to the press that a criminal case had started against 10 individuals working for organisations accusing them of facilitating the illegal entry of foreigners into Greece, violations of immigration law and espionage. While targeting organisations that support refugees, Greek authorities are being accused of endangering the lives of refugees at sea and violating their right to apply for asylum.

The Greek Minister of Migration has used these baseless accusations as a justification for imposing new laws that severely restrict the work and rights of organisations supporting refugees in Greece. Different European and United Nation experts and institutions have warned that these restrictions on the legitimate work of organisations infringe on fundamental rights and basic principles of democracy. At the same time, Greek authorities have introduced laws that could lead to criminal sanctions and heavy fines for those trying to save lives at sea. The people that have been criminalised between 2020-2021 have been members of organisations monitoring the land and sea borders.

Accusing and prosecuting people who support refugees and safe lives discourages others from helping those in need and prevents them from defending the rights of others. Cases such as the one against Seán, Sarah and Nassos come with a high individual cost, creating fear of what might happen in the future; exhaustion of having to fight seemingly endless legal battles and the negative impact of being branded as a criminal. Greek authorities should drop all charges against Seán, Sarah and Nassos and stop targeting organisations and individuals that support refugees, recognising their work as essential to saving lives at sea and defending the rights of refugees. EU and UN stakeholders should support this call and actively ensure that this trial respects the principles of a fair trial and that independent monitoring is allowed on the 18th of November.

Read here the call addressed to Greek government and EU institutions, signed by Free Humanitarians and other 49 CSOs.