MYTILENE, Greece (AP) — A court on the Greek island of Lesbos on Friday rejected charges against a group of aid workers and volunteers who participated in migrant rescue operations, ruling on procedural grounds to return the case to the prosecution for refiling.
The case, in which 24 people – 17 foreigners and seven Greeks – were charged over their work with migrants newly arriving on Lesbos, has drawn widespread criticism from human rights organizations. The defendants argue they were doing nothing more than assisting people whose lives were at risk.
“Trials like this are deeply concerning because they criminalize life-saving work and set a dangerous precedent,” the U.N. Human Rights Office said before the court decision Friday. “Indeed, there has already been a chilling effect, with human rights defenders and humanitarian organizations forced to halt their human rights work in Greece and other EU countries.”
Those on trial included prominent Syrian human rights worker Sarah Mardini, a refugee and competitive swimmer whose sister Yusra Mardini was part of the refugee swimming team at the Olympic Games in 2016 and 2021. The sisters’ story was made into a Netflix movie.
Mardini, who was not present for Friday’s hearing, and fellow volunteer Sean Binder, who was in Lesbos to attend the trial, spent more than three months in jail in Lesbos after their 2018 arrest on misdemeanor charges that included espionage, forgery and unlawful use of radio frequencies.
The court on Friday accepted objections by defense lawyers that the prosecution had failed to adhere to proper procedure in filing the charges. The defense successfully argued that prosecution documents were not translated for the foreign defendants, and that the espionage charges were vague.
The court dismissed the charges over radio frequencies as the law they were filed under has since been abolished.
In essence, the decision means the misdemeanor case has collapsed as the five-year statute of limitations on the espionage and forgery charges expires in early February and the prosecution is unlikely to have enough time to refile the case. One Greek defendant still faces a misdemeanor count of forgery.
However, Mardini and Binder are still under investigation for felony offences. No charges have yet been brought.
“It is a step, it is the first recognition that there were many legal mistakes that violated the essence of a fair trial,” defense lawyer Cleo Papapantoleon said. “The decision is important for us, and we expect the same to happen with the investigation into the felonies, for which there is also no evidence.”
The case was initially set to proceed in 2021 but was postponed over procedural issues.
“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,” Nils Muiznieks, director of Amnesty International’s European Regional Office, said.
“We urge the Greek authorities once more to drop all of the charges and allow Sarah and Sean to go back to their lives,” Muiznieks said. “The criminalization of these brave human rights defenders solely for helping refugees and migrants in need shows Greece and Europe’s callous behavior towards people seeking safety at their borders.”
Greece, which saw around a million people cross to its shores from neighboring Turkey at the height of a refugee crisis in 2015, has clamped down on migration, erecting a fence along much of its land border with Turkey and increasing sea patrols near its islands.
Greek officials say they have a strict but fair migration policy. They also deny, despite increasing evidence to the contrary, conducting illegal summary deportations of people arriving on Greek territory without allowing them to apply for asylum, a procedure known as “pushbacks.”
Kantouris reported from Thessaloniki, Greece. Elena Becatoros in Athens, Greece, contributed.