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Greek court to rule on ‘farcical’ charges against refugee rescuers this week

Meanwhile, two Mediterranean rescue ships carrying 110 refugees struggle through high waves and 40-knot winds after Italy forces them to sail over 1,000km to safety

A COURT in Greece is to decide later this week whether to drop the “farcical” charges against 24 refugee rescuers after the trial today was postponed to Friday, following procedural objections from the defendants’ lawyers.

The activists, who volunteered with the refugee rescue and support organisation Emergency Response Centre International (ERCI), saved thousands of lives in the waters around the Greek island of Lesbos between 2017 and 2018.

Two of the defendants — German-Irish citizen Sean Binder, 25, and former Syrian refugee Sarah Mardini, 24, whose 2015 journey to Europe with her sister inspired the 2022 Netflix film The Swimmers — were arrested by the Greek authorities in 2018 following a rescue operation and detained for 106 days.

They and 20 other ERCI members were charged with offences ranging from fraud and forgery, to people smuggling, espionage, being members of a criminal organisation, and money laundering.

If found guilty, they could face 25 years behind bars.

The activists were due to stand trial in November 2021, but the case was adjourned on procedural grounds until yesterday.

Listen to Sean Binder and Madi Williamson in episode 16 of The Civil Fleet Podcast

The defendants at the trial in Mytelini, Lesbos, this morning denied the charges, saying that they only wanted to saved lives.

Their lawyers argued that the defendants could not fairly defend themselves because the charges were too vague and that the prosecution had not provided evidence to support the accusations.

The judge adjourned the case to Friday, when the court will decide on the lawyers’ submitted objections.

Speaking outside the court afterwards, Mr Binder said the defence had given reason after irrefutable reason why the trial cannot continue.

Supporters outside the court in Lesbos today [Pic: Ruhi Loren Akhtar]

“All we are asking for, all our lawyers have demanded, is that the rule of law is respected. That Greek laws are respected.

“We want the rule of law, and we’ll find out on Friday whether we get the rule of law or the rule of flaws.”

Last week, Amnesty International Europe director Nils Muiznieks said Sean and Sarah did what any of us should do if we were in their position.

“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.

“It is farcical that this trial is even taking place. All charges against the rescuers must be dropped without delay.”

Madi Williamson from Free Humanitarians, a group that advocates for criminalised human rights defenders, described today as a step in a positive direction.

“I am really glad that the trial went ahead, as the toll this takes on the defendants and their supporters is significant,” she told The Civil Fleet.

Mare Liberum, a group that operated a human rights monitoring mission aboard a ship of the same name until the government forced it to stop, said the trial is part of a broader strategy of criminalisation and intimidation by the Greek state.

Listen here to Marie talking about Mare Liberum’s mission in the Aegean Sea

“The Greek authorities intend to silence all who stand in solidarity with people on the move and speak out against the murderous border regime,” the organisation said on Twitter yesterday.

“Those who suffer most from this systematic criminalisation are people on the move themselves. Away from the public eye, without access to adequate legal aid and support, hundreds of people are detained in Greece every year for alleged ‘smuggling’.”

Geo Barents rhib crews rescue people in the Mediterranean [Pic: MSF]

Meanwhile, in the Mediterranean, two activist-run rescue ships are being battered by high waves and howling winds as they sail toward a port the Italian authorities assigned to them, thousands of kilometres away from where they originally requested for one.

Due to the new decree issued by Italy’s far right government earlier this year, and widely condemned by rescue organisations, the ships must head straight to port after making a rescue.

Doctors Without Borders‘ (MSF) crew on the Geo Barents ship saved the lives of 73 people in the central Mediterranean on Saturday.

Following the rescue, the authorities ordered the ship to head towards Ancona, 1,482km and three days away from where the rescue took place.

“Our negotiations with the Italian authorities for a closer port have unfortunately been unsuccessful,” MSF said today.

“Italy is not open to discussion and has categorically refused our requests. We therefore have no choice but to comply and continue north towards Ancona.

“Complying does not mean agreeing. Our position remains unchanged: it is unacceptable to send us to Ancona while other suitable ports are much closer, especially in these weather conditions.

“This is against international maritime law and the best interest of the survivors.

“Once again, this decision targets search and rescue NGOs, but the real price will be paid by people fleeing across the Central Mediterranean and finding themselves in situations of distress.

“We will not remain silent and inactive!”

The Ocean Viking, the ship operated by SOS Mediterranee, rescued 37 people 1,575km and four days away from Ancona on Saturday also.

SOS Mediterranean shared video footage of the ship struggling through the waves on social media today.

Above it, the rescues said: “As expected, the weather [has] severely deteriorated with 40-knot winds and up to six-meter waves, adding pain to the 37 survivors on Ocean Viking who just escaped near-death. 95% are seasick.

“Such additional suffering could have been avoided with designation of a closer Place of Safety in Italy.”

UPDATE: January 11, 2023

All 37 people saved by the crew of the Ocean Viking were disembarked in Ancona last night.

Following the disembarkation, SOS Mediterranee posted the following on social media around midnight:

“The 37 survivors on Ocean Viking just disembarked in Ancona, 1,575km away from the area of operations.

“After going through extreme weather conditions, we are relieved that they are safe. Such unlawful situation could have been avoided with the designation of a closer port in Italy”

Top image shows rescuers Sarah Mardini and Sean Binder [Pic: Amnesty International]


Published by The Civil Fleet

A news blog and podcast focused on the activist-led refugee rescue and support missions across Fortress Europe

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