Greece to Put Aid Workers Who Helped Migrants on Trial on Espionage Charges

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ATHENS — A Greek trial for 2 dozen help staff, a few of them foreigners, is about to open on Thursday, charging them with espionage over their position in serving to migrants who arrived within the nation between 2016 and 2018.

The case shall be heard in a court docket on Lesbos, the Greek island that was on the forefront of the European migration disaster that started in 2015.

The trial is opening at a time when Greece’s conservative authorities is toughening its stance on migration and on teams working with migrants, aligning itself with a hardening local weather in Europe, which is grappling with a new migrant crisis at the Poland-Belarus border.

The Greek authorities has stated it is not going to permit a repeat of the 2015-2016 disaster which noticed hundreds of migrants streaming throughout the Aegean Sea every day, overwhelming Greece’s rescue companies. Rattled by fears of a brand new wave of refugees from Afghanistan, Greece has tightened the policing of its borders.

The defendants embody 17 overseas nationals, a few of them well-known activists reminiscent of Syrian refugee Sarah Mardini, the sister of the Olympic swimmer Yusra Mardini. The siblings captured worldwide consideration in 2015, on the peak of the migration disaster, after dragging their refugee boat to security.

Ms. Mardini and the 23 different help staff on trial might face up to eight years in jail if discovered responsible on fees of espionage, forgery and the illegal use of radio frequencies. A police investigation alleged that they monitored Greek Coast Guard radio channels and used a automobile with pretend army license plates to enter restricted entry areas on Lesbos.

The defendants are nonetheless beneath investigation over various suspected felonies, together with human smuggling and cash laundering, which might carry 20-year jail phrases.

Their attorneys say the entire fees are trumped up.

“From the case file material and an investigation that lasted more than three years, essentially keeping the defendants hostage, not one piece of incriminating evidence has emerged,” stated lawyer Clio Papantoleon, who represents among the defendants.

Ms. Mardini, 26, couldn’t journey to Greece from Germany, the place she was granted asylum, to defend herself. She has been barred from getting into the nation since her launch in December 2018 from a high-security jail within the capital Athens, the place she was detained for three-and-a-half months.

Sean Binder, a 27-year-old German-born Irish nationwide who was arrested on the identical day as Ms. Mardini in 2018, is anticipated to seem in court docket on Thursday. He was additionally detained for three-and-a-half months, on the island of Chios, earlier than being launched pending his trial.

“The idea that we’re spies is preposterous,” he stated by phone on Wednesday.

Mr. Binder stated he had cooperated with the authorities, even calling the coast guard after recognizing a migrant-smuggling vessel.

“In an ideal world, there would be no need for civil search and rescue,” he stated. “But in the real world, there’s a gap, and it’s a gap into which people fall and drown.”

Human rights teams say the prosecutions are absurd.

“The charges they face are farcical and should never have come to trial,” Nils Muiznieks, director of Amnesty International’s European Regional Office, stated in an announcement on Monday. “Sarah and Sean did lifesaving humanitarian work, spotting boats in distress off Greek shores and providing those onboard with blankets, water and a warm welcome.”

Migration consultants say the trial on Lesbos is emblematic of a broader shift towards the criminalization of refugees and help teams.

“State authorities are progressively emboldened to take constantly harsher measures against migrants and those who help migrants,” stated François Crépeau, an skilled on worldwide regulation and a former high United Nations official on the rights of migrants. Both official language and insurance policies “increasingly portray migrants and their supporters as criminals.”

Mr. Muiznek, of Amnesty International, stated criminalizing the actions of humanitarian teams was not solely unfair however counterproductive.

“Stopping rescue operations doesn’t stop people from making dangerous journeys,” he stated. “It simply makes those journeys more perilous.”

The case in opposition to the employees has been described in a European Parliament report as “currently the largest case of criminalization of solidarity in Europe.”

The Greek migration and justice ministries stated they may not remark because the case within the courts and so they have to respect the independence of the judiciary.

But this isn’t the primary time help staff have discovered themselves in Greek courts. An analogous trial on Lesbos in 2018 — of Spanish and Danish staff — led to the rescuers’ acquittal.

And extra trials are doubtless to come.

More than 40 rescue staff face prosecution on fees together with violating state secrets and techniques legal guidelines, in accordance to two case information ready by the Greek police over the previous year-and-a-half.

Aid staff have additionally been prosecuted in different European Union nations reminiscent of Italy, which confronted a brand new migrant inflow this yr.

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