Greece opens espionage trial of aid workers who helped migrants

A volunteer directs a boat of migrants as they arrive on the island of Lesbos, Greece, on October 15, 2015. (File photo: NYTimes)
ATHENS — Two dozen aid workers, including Syrian refugee-turned-activist Sara Mardini, went on trial Tuesday on charges of espionage over their roles in helping migrants after they arrived in Greece in the wake of Europe’s migration crisis of 2015 and 2016.اضافة اعلان

The case is being heard in a court on Lesbos, the Greek island that was at the forefront of the crisis, and comes as Greece’s conservative government toughens its stance on migration and on groups working with migrants, in line with a hardening climate in Europe.

‘Farcical’Amnesty International, the rights group, has called the case against Mardini and her co-defendants “farcical,” pointing to what it called a “peak” in efforts by Greek authorities to criminalize NGOs.

“The Greek government has tried to deter humanitarian action by various means,” said Amnesty International’s director for Europe, Nils Muiznieks. “The outcome of the trial will be an important signal to others doing similar work,” he added.

The 24 defendants being tried on Lesbos are either members of or volunteers with an NGO, the Emergency Response Center International. They include Mardini, who now lives in Berlin and was not in court Tuesday. Mardini is a sister of Olympic swimmer Yusra Mardini.

The sisters captured international attention in 2015 after fleeing the war in Syria and dragging their refugee boat to safety, a story made into a film last year.

After receiving asylum in Germany, Sara Mardini returned to Greece in 2016 to help other migrants. She was arrested two years later and detained in a high-security Athens prison for more than three months.

A police investigation found that she and other defendants had monitored Greek Coast Guard radio channels and vessels and used a vehicle with fake military license plates to enter restricted-access areas on Lesbos.

If found guilty of the charges, including espionage and forgery, Mardini and the 23 other aid workers would each face up to eight years in prison.

‘Unsubstantiated’ caseClio Papapantoleon, a human rights lawyer who represents Mardini and another defendant, Sean Binder, an Irish citizen, said there was no incriminating evidence for any of the offenses they had been charged with or accused of and that they were basically being held hostage.

“The case was used as an example to stop other young people thinking of coming to Greece to help and join that big wave of solidarity,” Papapantoleon said. “But it’s totally unsubstantiated.”

A 2021 European Parliament report called it “the largest case of criminalization of solidarity in Europe.” Muiznieks of Amnesty International said, “Helping people at risk of drowning in one of the deadliest sea routes in Europe and assisting them on the shoreline is not a crime.”

The trial has underlined the Greek authorities’ commitment to deterring humanitarian assistance to migrants, Muiznieks added, “something which we see in a number of European countries.”

Mardini, in a recent interview, described her volunteer work in Greece as “a passion.”

“I thought I could offer something there,” she said.

Binder, who, unlike most of the defendants, was on Lesbos on Tuesday, said that all he had wanted to do was help.

“Most of the time, I sat on the shoreline, holding a bottle of water and a blanket,” said Binder, who was detained at the same time as Mardini but at a different prison, on the Greek island of Chios.

“I’m not special,” he added. “This could happen to anyone. It could happen to you.”

CrackdownBracing for general elections before the summer, the Greek government has vowed to avert a repeat of the crisis, which led to more than 1 million Europe-bound migrants streaming through Greece and straining the country’s resources. Officials have pledged to fortify the northern land border with Turkey by extending a fence and adding guards.

Tensions between Greece and Turkey have been rising in recent months over a series of issues, including territorial disputes and migration, raising the specter of a conflict between the two neighbors, who have long had an uneasy relationship.

Greece’s judiciary has also cracked down on nongovernmental organizations that work with migrants. In addition to the people on trial this week, the heads of two other groups, the Greek Helsinki Monitor and the Aegean Boat Report, face criminal charges of facilitating the illegal entry of migrants and membership of a criminal organization.

Greece’s migration minister, Notis Mitarachi, would not comment because the trial is underway, as is a judicial investigation of the same defendants over accusations of crimes including human smuggling and money laundering, which carry longer sentences.

The government of Italy, a country that is another popular entry point for Europe-bound migrants, has also taken a harder line on NGOs. Its new far-right prime minister, Giorgia Meloni, recently introduced stricter rules for charities that rescue migrants at sea.

Greece, since tightening the rules governing the operation of NGOs in 2020, has been increasingly at loggerheads with such groups. Some of them have been instrumental in documenting the expulsion of migrants without due process, which are called “pushbacks” by Greece. Frontex, the EU agency charged with monitoring borders, has been accused of covering up Greece’s efforts to expel the migrants.

Some analysts say the crackdown on NGOs is fueled by Greece’s difficult relationship with Turkey. “There is a Cold War taking place in the Aegean today, and refugees are weaponized by Turkey,” said Aristides Hatzis, a professor of legal theory at the University of Athens. “But their exploitation by Turkey does not diminish their predicament, and the volunteers of most NGOs are only interested in the humanitarian tragedy.”

Turkish officials, including President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, have regularly accused Greece of mistreating migrants.

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