Greece frees four migrant charity workers, among them a Syrian pending trial

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Greek authorities on Wednesday released from pre-trial detention four members of a charity working with migrants who had been arrested in August for allegedly helping migrant smuggling, their lawyer said.

Among the four was Syrian refugee Sara Mardini, who gained international attention when she and her sister - both competitive swimmers - reached the Greek island of Lesbos in 2015, swimming for their lives after the inflatable boat they had left Turkey in started taking on water.

The four face charges including belonging to a criminal organization, money laundering, espionage and breaches of immigration laws. They deny wrongdoing, according to the Associated Press.

This comes after more than three months in a Greek prison.

Mardini is the sister of Yusra Mardini, who became internationally known for swimming on the Refugee Olympics team during the 2016 Olympics in Rio.

While her younger sister went on to continue swimming professionally, Sara Mardini returned to Lesbos multiple times in two years to volunteer for the Greek non-profit Emergency Response Center International (ECRI).

After her last volunteering stint, Mardini was on her way back to start a new semester at Bard University in Berlin when she was arrested and put into an Athens prison on pretrial detention. As the result of a lengthy investigation, Greek police accused Mardini, as well as fellow volunteer, Irish national Sean Binder, and ECRI’s Nassos Karakitsos of offenses including money laundering, smuggling, trafficking and even espionage. If charged, Mardini could face 25 years in prison.

The case raised alarm bells around Europe. Mardini’s lawyers and rights groups, such as Human Rights Watch, say the charges are unfounded and an attempt to criminalize humanitarian aid - in this case by misrepresenting humanitarian search and rescue work.

Syrian refugee mardini and Pope (AFP)
Syrian refugee mardini and Pope (AFP)

Her lawyer, Zakarias Kesses, told ABC News that this is the first case in which police declared that a registered non-profit organization was a “criminal team” that illegally profited from donations it received through fundraising.

“The police decided to create this case to push back all the NGOs from the Lesbos,” Kessos said. “They believe as long as there are so many NGOs, this is encouraging refugees to come.”

Lesbos is home to an estimated 10,000 refugees, who live in overcrowded camps such as Moria, where there is one toilet for every 190 people, according to UNHCR.

The trial will continue after Mardini and Binder return to Germany.

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