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Is saving lives a crime? The trial of human rights defenders begins in Greece

Searching and rescuing refugees in distress — is this a crime? It is about to be decided. On 10th January 2023, the trial of human rights defenders Sarah Mardini, Seán Binder, Nassos Karakitos and 21 others will begin on the Greek island of Lesvos. The accusations include smuggling, membership of a criminal organisation, money laundering and espionage. Seán Binder stated:

“We are not criminals, neither are we heroes, providing assistance to people in distress is necessary — nobody should be abandoned to drown. My actions were guided by the duties enshrined in international maritime law and the European Convention on Human Rights”

The process, which has already been delayed, starts at the outset on a basis of lack of clarity. According to Sean Binder’s legal team, unless rectified immediately, this is likely to lead to an unfair trial.

In August 2018, Sean Binder, a volunteer for a humanitarian NGO in Lesvos, was arrested and charged with many criminal offenses. If considered guilty he will face 20 years in jail.

Edward Fitzgerald KC, on behalf of the international legal team acting for Mr Binder, condemns the trial:

“Mr Binder’s search and rescue work sought to protect the life, health and physical integrity of men, women and children at sea and immediately on arrival in Greece. A proper application of the duty to provide assistance — and the exemption for humanitarian work — in international law should, in our view, serve to protect him from prosecution for this work”

Read more of the statement here of Gráinne Mellon of Garden Court Chambers, who acts for Sean Binder.

Since the arrest, many concerns have been expressed about these charges. Associations and human rights organisations have emphasised the lack of legal basis for the trial (see here).

Fenix- Humanitarian Legal Aid

A UN Special Rapporteur has repeatedly stated the irregularities of the case and their concern about the risk of criminalisation of humanitarianism. In 2021 the Special Rapporteur denounced (read here):

“A guilty verdict, which could put them in prison for 25 years, would set a dangerous precedent of making criminals of people who support the rights of migrants and refugees across Greece and the European Union”

More concerns expressed again by a UN Special Rapporteur this week here.

Amnesty International joins in expressing its concerns. Nils Muižnieks, Director of Amnesty International’s European Regional Office stated:

“(..) This trial reveals how the Greek authorities will go to extreme lengths to deter humanitarian assistance and discourage migrants and refugees from seeking safety on the country’s shores, something which we see in a number of European countries. It is farcical that this trial is even taking place. All charges against the rescuers must be dropped without delay.”

Binder himself spoke in the European Parliament a month ago, denouncing the danger of the criminalisation of humanitarianism. See the video here:

This article first appeared in Are You Syrious?

Image: Free Humanitarians, Ruhi Loren AkhtarPeople in Mytelini supporting the human rights defenders on trial.

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