Dozens of aid workers involved in refugee rescues, including a Syrian swimmer, will be put on trial in Greece over charges of espionage and disclosing state secrets, in a case that rights groups have deemed as “politically motivated,” according to a Reuters report.
The trial is set to open on Thursday, in a court on the Greek island of Lesbos, for their role in helping migrants who arrived in Greece between 2016 and 2018, the New York Times reported.
Lesbos has been at the forefront of Europe’s migration crisis which began back in 2015.
The 24 aid workers who are going on trial are affiliated with non-profit search-and-rescue group the Emergency Response Center International (ERCI) that operated in Lesbos between 2016 and 2018.
They face up to eight years in prison and felony charges including people smuggling, belonging to a criminal group and money laundering, all of which carry 25-year prison sentences, Reuters reported.
Among those to be tried is Sarah Mardini, a Syrian refugee swimmer who took an overcrowded dingy to Greece with her Olympian sister Yusra in 2015, at the height of Europe’s refugee crisis, and saved the other 19 passengers by pulling their sinking boat to shore for four hours.
Mardini and another volunteer, Sean Binder, a German national, were arrested in 2018 and spent 107 days in Athens’s maximum-security prison in pre-trial detention.
Both left Greece after they were released, and Binder has returned despite his misgivings about the trial.
“I never for a moment thought that trying to help somebody out at sea would land you in prison,” Binder told Reuters in Athens. “I’m terrified of going back to prison.”
He said he had been handcuffed in prison to a man who had committed double homicide by burning someone alive.
“It is frightening to be going there again and I’m not confident that, just because there is absolutely no evidence of any wrongdoing... I’m still not confident that we will not be found guilty,” he said.
Mardini, who now lives in Germany, has been barred from re-entering Greece and will represented by a lawyer.
“It’s mind boggling why someone cannot attend their own trial,” said Giorgos Kosmopoulos, a senior campaigner for Amnesty, calling on authorities to drop the charges during a solidarity protest outside Greek parliament.
Binder, a rescue diver, said he had only intended to volunteer for a while.
“It wasn’t my plan to spend the rest of my life doing this, to be some kind of champion,” he said.
“If you saw someone drowning you would do the same as me, you would reach out a hand, pull them out, and that’s the exact same crime that I’m accused of doing.”
“This emblematic case demonstrates how far the Greek authorities will go to deter people from helping refugees and migrants,” said Amnesty International’s European director Nils Muiznieks.
Human Rights Watch said that the trial “politically motivated.”
The trial comes at a time when the country’s conservative government is toughening its stance on migration and groups that are working with migrants amid a hardening climate towards migrants in Europe given the new migrant crisis that has been taking place at the Poland-Belarus border.
The Greek government has said it will take the necessary measures to ensure that the 2015-2016 migration crisis will not happen again. The crisis saw thousands of migrants crossing the Aegean Sea every day, which was overwhelming for the country’s rescue services, the New York Times reported.
Greece has also tightened the policing of its borders due to fears of an influx of even more refugees coming from Afghanistan.