Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International challenge charges against 24 volunteers, who had gone on trial accused of smuggling-related charges.

One of the defendants, Irish national Sean Binder says that what is on trial is human rights.
One of the defendants, Irish national Sean Binder says that what is on trial is human rights. (AFP)

A group of 24 volunteers who participated in migrant rescue operations on an eastern Greek island have gone on trial in a smuggling-related case that has been widely criticised by human rights groups.

The group of Greek and foreign aid workers and volunteers of the registered nongovernmental search-and-rescue organisation, Emergency Response Center International (ERCI), faced trial in the town of Mytilini on Lesbos on Tuesday on misdemeanor charges including espionage and forgery.

Two of the defendants, Syrian refugee and competitive swimmer Sarah Mardini and Irish national Sean Binder, were detained in Lesbos in 2018 for over three months.

Other defendants include Nassos Karakitsos, a trained rescuer, and Panos Moraitis, the founder of the search-and-rescue group, who were also held in prolonged pretrial detention in 2018, forcing the group to cease its operations.

Greek police said that the volunteers had collected information about refugee flows and provided assistance to organised trafficking groups.

READ MORE: Greece resumes long-delayed trial of migrant rescuers despite criticism

Charges based on 'blatant factual errors'

Human Rights Watch, however, said that the charges are based on a police report, which contains “blatant factual errors”.

It added that ERCI, the organisation of the defendants, regularly co-operates with Greek authorities.

The report includes “claims that some of the accused participated in rescue missions on multiple dates when they were not in Greece,” Human Rights Watch (HRW) said in a statement.

“The report also cites communications between humanitarians that police surveilled on dates outside the time frame of their warrant.”

The espionage charge is based on the volunteers’ efforts to identify migrant boats in distress, including by monitoring Greek Coast Guard and Frontex radio channels and vessels.

However, the HRW statement explains, anyone with a VHF radio can access the unencrypted radio channels, as the police report itself acknowledged.

The forgery charge alleges that police found a fake military license plate under the civilian plates of a vehicle that Mardini and Binder used and that the pair intended to enter restricted military areas on Lesbos where asylum seekers sometimes arrive.

However, according to Human Rights Watch, the report does not include any evidence that Mardini and Binder tried to enter the restricted areas. Their car also clearly displayed the logos of the rescue group they volunteered for.

Both Mardini and Binder have stated that they were unaware of any fake plates.

The case was initially set to go ahead in 2021 but was postponed over procedural issues.

READ MORE: Yusra Mardini: From rescuing refugees at sea, to competing in the Olympics

Procedural issues

Defence lawyers filed objections on Tuesday on procedural issues regarding the way the prosecution has been handled, said Cleo Papapantoleon, one of the lawyers, adding that the court could rule on the objections when it reconvenes on Friday.

Human Rights Watch says the defendants have been prevented from their basic rights, including the right to be promptly informed of the criminal charges in a language one understands, creating major challenges in the process of preparing a defence.

The right to be present at one’s own trial is enshrined in international, European, and Greek law, but Mardini, who lives in Germany, has been barred from entering Greece to be present at her own trial.

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Human rights on trial

Human Rights Watch pointed out that the case is an indictment of the Greek authorities who have been accused in recent years of forcibly pushing back migrants in dinghies back to Türkiye in alleged illegal pushbacks.

“What is on trial today is human rights. That is the fundamental problem,” Binder said outside court before Tuesday’s hearing.

“We are desperate to go to trial because what we did was legal,” Binder said.

Human rights group Amnesty International has described the case against the aid workers as “farcical” and called on Greek authorities to drop the charges.

“Sarah and Sean did what any of us should do if we were in their position. Helping people at risk of drowning in one of the deadliest sea routes in Europe and assisting them on the shoreline is not a crime,” Nils Muiznieks, director of Amnesty’s European Regional Office, said in a statement ahead of Tuesday’s hearing.

READ MORE: Two-month-old dies in migrant shipwreck off Lesvos in delayed rescue

Source: TRTWorld and agencies