Syrian ‘hero’ swimmer amongst dozens going through trial in Greece

Athens, Greece – Sarah Mardini, the Syrian aggressive swimmer who was hailed as a hero for saving refugees’ lives at sea, is amongst dozens of humanitarian staff in Greece going through prices that might see them imprisoned for many years.

The trial of the 24 defendants, who labored on the Greek island of Lesbos helping susceptible folks arriving on Europe’s shores, is about to start on Thursday.

They had been members of an NGO, the Emergency Response Center International (ERCI), a search-and-rescue group which operated on the Greek island from 2016 to 2018.

They withstand eight-year imprisonment for state-secret espionage and disclosure and 25 years in jail for prices together with smuggling and cash laundering.

Amnesty International has referred to as the accusations “unfair and baseless”.

Three years in the past, Mardini and Sean Binder, an Irish citizen and rescue diver, had been volunteering their time on Lesbos once they had been arrested on a collection of prices, together with smuggling, espionage, illegal use of radio frequencies and fraud.

They spent greater than 100 days in pre-trial detention earlier than being launched on bail in December 2018.

The trial starting Thursday could possibly be the primary of a potential collection of court docket instances associated to the proceedings introduced by Greek authorities in 2018.

Mardini, 25, arrived on Lesbos as a refugee from Syria in 2015.

She and her sister Yusra Mardini, now an Olympic swimmer, had been extensively celebrated for his or her bravery and humanitarian spirit. When the engine of the refugee boat they had been on failed, they saved 18 fellow passengers by dragging the sinking vessel to security.

Sarah returned to the island three years later, in 2018, to volunteer on a search-and-rescue mission. There she met Binder, 27, and the 2 labored to assist individuals who had simply arrived on Lesbos to say asylum earlier than they had been arrested.

Rights teams have referred to as for the fees to be dropped and identified inconsistencies and inaccuracies within the prosecution’s case.

“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,” mentioned Bill Van Esveld, affiliate youngsters’s rights director at Human Rights Watch.

“The slipshod investigation and absurd charges, including espionage, against people engaged in life-saving work reeks of politically motivated prosecution.”

Colm O’Gorman, head of Amnesty International Ireland, mentioned: “Sean Binder, who grew up in Ireland, has seen an outpouring of assist for him from throughout our society, and we all know that the world will likely be watching what occurs in Greece this week. The indisputable fact that he and different humanitarians are going through as much as 25 years in jail for exhibiting primary human decency and compassion is an ethical stain on Europe.

“Seeking asylum is not a crime; trying to save people from drowning at sea is not a crime. Europe has to stop criminalising humanitarians, and to start protecting those fleeing to our shores in search of safety.”

Sean Binder holds a placard throughout an illustration by Amnesty International activists in solidarity in Athens [File: Louiza Vradi/Reuters]

Some spying prices have been raised as a result of authorities mentioned the volunteers communicated through an encrypted messaging service, which was revealed to be the generally used utility WhatsApp.

Zacharias Kesses, the lawyer for Mardini and Binder, informed Al Jazeera that he has submitted “solid evidence” exhibiting that ERCI communicated with port police every time it had info in order that the police power and the NGO might work collectively for the very best final result for search-and-rescue operations.

“This is the most characteristic incident of judicial harassment against humanitarians,” he mentioned.

“This is the way that they chose three years ago in order to send away humanitarians and NGOs from the islands and they achieved it. This case was very high profile as the first time that volunteers were imprisoned [and] because of this many other volunteers left the islands frightened that they would have the same result.”

Nassos Karakitsos, who was the sector director for ECRI and is amongst these going through prices, informed Al Jazeera that the case got here as a whole shock as that they had been supporting the Greek Coast Guard and Frontex of their work.

“I am facing 25 years in prison for actually helping people,” he mentioned.

“They try to scare people, that’s why we are afraid because maybe they need us as an example,” he identified that the case has made others fearful to assist asylum seekers for fear of criminalisation.

“Even now nobody dares to assist people with some water, some food, some blankets.”

The Greek authorities says it has taken a hardline approach on refugees however considers its insurance policies “firm but fair”.

Greek authorities have nonetheless been repeatedly accused of pushing again asylum seekers who’ve arrived on the Greek territory.

Extensive reporting has proven how asylum seekers, together with youngsters and younger infants, are faraway from the Greek islands after their arrival and deserted at sea in life rafts.

“I feel angry about the fact that we have to go to trial,” Binder informed Al Jazeera. “We did nothing wrong, and we are ready to argue that. It’s taken immense financial and emotional cost and we want this to be over, we have nothing to hide.”

He mentioned the case is dissuading support staff, “and now, three years later, there are no civilian search-and-rescue [teams] left on Lesbos”.

Binder and Karakitsos plan to attend the trial in particular person, however Mardini, who lives in Germany the place she has asylum, is barred from coming into Greece – a ban which was not lifted for her day in court docket.

“Search and rescue is morally and legally the right thing to do, every inch of maritime law requires it,” mentioned Binder.

“Yet we see the securitisation of the border to make a fortress around Europe which casts the most vulnerable as illegal. Because now the crisis is seen through the prism of ‘smuggling’, search and rescuers are thrown in with smugglers, that is the core issue with this false narrative of ‘pull factors’.”

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