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Greek court drops charges against human rights activists who saved refugees at sea

Case against human rights workers who helped refugees in rescue missions had drawn international criticism
Sarah Mardini and 23 other activists were accused of several serious offences, including facilitating undocumented migration into the EU (AFP)

A Greek court on Friday dismissed charges against 24 human rights workers who joined refugee rescue missions, following an outcry.

The high-profile case included Syrian human rights worker Sarah Mardini and Sean Binder, alongside 22 other volunteers from the search and rescue NGO Emergency Response Centre International (ERCI).

The human rights workers were charged with several serious offences, including espionage, assisting smuggling networks, membership of a criminal organisation, and money laundering. They faced a potential 25 years in jail if convicted. 

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Binder and Sarah, the two best-known defendants, were arrested in 2018 after taking part in several search and rescue operations around Lesbos, assisting refugees stranded at sea. 

Sarah, a Syrian refugee who arrived in Europe by sea with her sister Yusra, went on to inspire the Netflix film The Swimmers

After gaining asylum in Germany, Yusra competed in the 2016 and 2020 Olympic Games. Sarah returned to Greece in 2016, where she began volunteering with ERCI, a now-defunct NGO, on the Greek island of Lesbos.

Amnesty International said the activists were "facing unfair, baseless charges simply for helping refugees and migrants at risk of drowning at sea".

The court dismissed the case over irregularities in the prosecution's filing of the charges, and returned it for refiling. The defence had argued that charges of espionage were vague and indictment documents were not translated for foreign defendants.

The Legal Centre Lesvos, a Greek human rights association, said the prosecutor could potentially reissue an indictment addressing the issues raised in the court but that was "unlikely given the statute of limitations".

It also cautioned against celebrating the ruling, calling it "an inadequate decision, and not to be celebrated given that felony charges are still pending against all defendants, but an important first step".

'Deeply concerning'

Following the verdict, Amnesty International urged Greek authorities to end cases against the human rights workers. 

“Today’s decision offers the authorities a new opportunity to put an end to this ordeal and correct their own wrongdoing by dropping all of the charges, including the more serious felony charges which still await them. The procedural mistakes raised by the Court, including failing to provide translation, only compound the absurdity of the Greek authorities targeting people who were defending the rights of migrants and refugees," the statement said.

The case against the volunteers had been widely criticised by human rights advocates. 

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UN Human Rights office spokeswoman Liz Throssell told reporters before the court decision on Friday that such trials were "deeply concerning because they criminalise life-saving work and set a dangerous precedent".

She added that the case has already had a "chilling effect", and urged the court to drop all the charges. 

The Legal Centre Lesvos said that as a result of the "trumped up charges" in the case, "rescue activities of civilian actors to support migrants arriving to the Greek islands has all but stopped, and a climate of fear prevails.

"Meanwhile, violence against migrants at Greece's maritime border had escalated into a systemic policy of pushbacks, which continues with complete impunity."

A European parliamentary report previously called the case "the largest case of criminalisation of solidarity in Europe".

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