Long-awaited trial of 24 aid workers accused of espionage starts in Lesbos | Global development
Sarah Mardini, the refugee immortalized in the latest Netflix film The Swimmers, was the talk of Lesvos this week as the long-awaited trial of 24 aid workers accused of espionage began on the island.
Eight years after the Syrian woman and her younger sister, Yusra, rescued 18 fellow passengers from a sinking dinghy on the island, it was Mardin’s name that came to the fore after appeal court judge Styliani Spyridonidou issued a summons to the defendants in the start of a hearing that has raised widespread human rights concerns. But while Mardin’s story grabbed the headlines in Greek newspapers, the 27-year-old student, accused of espionage after returning to the island to help refugees, was not present.
“As on Tuesday, she will not attend on Friday,” said Zacharias Kesses, her Athenian lawyer, referring to proceedings that were interrupted on Tuesday amid chaotic scenes in the Mytilene court that saw the presiding judge crash the bench as lawyers , speaking of one. another called for the indictments to be dropped. “What has happened has been very traumatic for her, but she is happy that, finally, the trial has started.”
Human rights groups, which have called for the humanitarians to be cleared of what they described as “farcical” charges, say Mardin’s absence is just one reason why the hearing is so flawed.
Granted asylum in Germany, the Syrian who spent more than 100 days in detention in Athens’ high-security Korydallos prison following her arrest in the summer of 2018 has since been banned from entering Greece, where authorities have labeled her a a threat to the citizen. safety. Her presence would require an appeal of the travel ban.
Few cases have been as emblematic of Europe’s increasingly oppressed community of migrant solidarity as this one. In 2015, at the height of the refugee crisis, Lesbos was on the front lines of the largest movement of people since World War II.
Former aid worker Seán Binder, who is among the defendants on trial for espionage in Mytilene, the island’s port city, this week. Photo: Helena Smith/The Guardian
Amnesty International has criticized the legal proceedings as indicative of the lengths to which Greek authorities will go to thwart volunteers helping asylum seekers at land and sea borders from which they have increasingly been forcibly turned away.
“We are talking about young volunteers who should be applauded for saving the lives of refugees in distress,” says Giorgos Kosmopoulos, the group’s chief migration officer. “Instead, they face these farcical charges, the sole purpose of which is to keep them off the shores of Greece while the authorities carry out misdemeanours.”
In addition to espionage, aid workers, including Greek citizens, are accused of illegal use of radio frequencies and forgery. Classified as misdemeanors under Greek law, the crimes are punishable by up to eight years in prison, although lawyers say the indictment was sloppily assembled, with defendants listed as numbers, not all knowing what offense they were alleged to have committed. .
The espionage charges are based on claims that while on Lesvos, the volunteers monitored radio channels and coast guard vessels to receive advanced notice of the location of smugglers’ vessels. In an 86-page report compiled after a six-month investigation, police singled out the use of an “encrypted messaging service” — namely the popular messaging app WhatsApp — to back up the espionage claims.
The defendants were all signed up to the International Emergency Response Center, among the plethora of NGOs that at the height of the crisis drew thousands of idealistic youth to Lesvos, then a magnet for migrants making the perilous Aegean crossing from Turkey.
The now-defunct search and rescue group has been described by police as a criminal gang set up to launder money and bring people into the country illegally.
The trial comes more than a year after it was adjourned when a lower court ruled it lacked jurisdiction to hear the case, prolonging a court drama that has not only highlighted growing pressures on civil society but also a hardening stance of Europe towards refugees.
Somali refugee Hanad Mohammed in a Mytilene police cell after the appeals court in Lesbos ruled that his 146-year sentence for people smuggling will be overturned. Photo: Helena Smith/The Guardian
On Monday, Hanad Mohammed, a Somali man convicted of people smuggling and sentenced to 146 years in prison, sat in the same court, head bowed in prayer, for an appeal hearing that eventually allowed him to walk free.
In Mardin’s absence, it was Seán Binder, a German-born Irishman and trained rescue diver also backed by rights groups, who was the subject of press photographers on Tuesday. The 29-year-old law graduate, similarly held for three months in custody following his arrest in late 2018, sat with other defendants on wooden seats below the bench as lawyers argued that the case to be thrown out citing procedural errors. . When the court reconvenes on Friday, it will either rule that the hearing should continue, or uphold their objections that doing so would amount to a denial of due process.
Much is at stake. The trial is a preamble to proceedings that could escalate when investigating magistrates complete a separate investigation into far more serious charges of people smuggling, fraud, membership of a criminal organization and money laundering also brought against the 24 aid workers – crimes under Greek law. which provide for 25 years in prison. Although the investigation, first opened four years ago, has yet to lead to any indictments, it has exacerbated a bitter experience that Binder described as the “sword of Damocles” with the accused’s lives on hold. until it is finished.
“If they thought we were the hateful criminals they claim us to be, I would have thought they would want us in jail as soon as possible,” he sighed as he stood outside the court in the island’s port city.
“But here we are, four years later, being tried for misdemeanors and even if we get the best result on Friday, we may have to wait another 15 years for the criminal trial to begin.”
Greece’s centre-right government has described its migration policy as “strict but fair” and when asked about the Lesbos trial, the Guardian was told it would “never comment” on a court case.
But the controversial trial has also been condemned by the European Parliament as “the biggest case of criminalization of solidarity in Europe”.
Standing next to a banner with the words “the death of Europe [sic] values” Grace O’Sullivan, an Irish Green MEP, deplored what she described as the “barely political motivations” behind the allegations.
Irish Green Party MEP Grace O’Sullivan, who has accused Greece of criminalizing migrant solidarity workers, in Mytilene this week. Photo: Helena Smith/The Guardian
“It is rare for MEPs to weigh in on individual cases in national courts,” she said, “but this case has turned out to be so fraught with bare political motives aimed at shutting down all search and rescue operations at EU borders- so that the political leadership must make its voice heard. We should be rewarding humanitarians for upholding the EU’s declared values, and yet here we are threatening them with 25 years in prison.