Long-awaited trial of 24 aid workers accused of espionage begins in Lesbos Global development

Sarah Mardini, the refugee immortalized in the recent Netflix movie, The Swimmers, was the talk of Lesvos this week as the long-awaited trial of 24 aid workers accused of espionage, got underway on the island.

Eight years after the Syrian and her younger sister, Yusra, saved 18 fellow passengers from a sinking dinghy off the island, it was Mardini’s name that stood out as appeals court judge, Styliani Spyridonidou, conducted a roll call of defendants at the start of a hearing that has fueled widespread human rights concerns. But, although Mardini’s story hogged the Greek headlines, the 27-year-old student, accused of spying after returning to the island to assist refugees, was not present.

“As on Tuesday she will not be attending on Friday,” said Zacharias Kesses, her Athenian lawyer, referring to proceedings that were cut short on Tuesday amid chaotic scenes in Mytilene’s courthouse that saw the presiding judge slam the bench as lawyers, talking over one another, called for the indictments to be annulled. “What has happened has been very traumatic for her, but she is happy that, at last, the trial has begun.”

Rights groups, who have appealed for the humanitarians to be acquitted of charges roundly described as “farcical”, say Mardini’s absence is just one reason why the hearing is so deeply flawed.

Granted asylum in Germany, the Syrian who spent over 100 days in pre-trial detention in Athens’ high security Korydallos prison, following her arrest in the summer of 2018, has since been barred from entering Greece where authorities have labeled her a threat to the nation security. Her presence would necessitate the travel ban being appealed.

Few cases have been as emblematic for Europe’s increasingly oppressed migrant solidarity community as this. In 2015, at the height of the refugee crisis, Lesvos was on the frontline of the greatest movement of people since the second world war.

Former aid worker Seán Binder, who is among the defendants on trial for espionage in Mytilene, the island’s port town, this week. Photograph: Helena Smith/The Guardian

Amnesty International has slammed the legal proceedings as being indicative of the lengths to which Greek authorities will go to deter volunteers helping asylum seekers at land and sea borders from which, increasingly, they have been violently repulsed.

“We are talking about young volunteers who should be applauded for saving lives of refugees in distress,” says Giorgos Kosmopoulos, the group’s chief migration campaigner. “Instead, they are faced with these farcical charges whose sole intent is to keep them away from Greece’s shores while authorities conduct pushbacks.”

In addition to spying, the aid workers who include Greek nationals, stand 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 had been so sloppily assembled, with the defendants listed as numbers, not everyone knew which offense they were alleged to have committed.

Accusations of espionage are based on allegations that while on Lesbos the volunteers monitored coastguard radio channels and vessels to gain advanced notification of the location of smugglers’ boats. In an 86-page report, compiled after a six-month investigation, the police singled out the use of an “encrypted messaging service” – namely the popular communication app, WhatsApp – to back the spying claims.

The defendants had all signed up with the Emergency Response Center International, among the plethora of NGOs that at the height of the crisis attracted thousands of young idealists to Lesbos, then a magnet for migrants making the perilous Aegean sea crossing from Turkey.

The now defunct search and rescue group has been described by the police as a criminal gang established for the purpose of money laundering and bringing people illegally into the country.

The trial comes more than a year after being postponed when a lower tribunal ruled it lacked the competence to hear the case, prolonging a judicial drama that has not only highlighted the growing pressures on civil society but Europe’s hardening stance towards refugees.

Somali refugee Hanad Mohammed in a Mytilene police cell after Lesbos' appeals court ruled that his 146-year-long sentence for people smuggling will be overturned.
Somali refugee Hanad Mohammed in a Mytilene police cell after the Lesbos appeals court ruled that his 146-year-long sentence for people smuggling will be overturned. Photograph: Helena Smith/The Guardian

On Monday, Hanad Mohammed, a Somali convicted of people smuggling and sentenced to 146 years in prison, sat in the same court, his head bent deep in prayer, for an appeals hearing that ultimately allowed him to walk free.

With Mardini absent, it was Seán Binder, a German-born Irishman and trained rescue diver, also championed by rights groups, who was the subject of press photographers on Tuesday. The 29-year-old law graduate, similarly held for three months in pre-trial detention, after his arrest in late 2018, sat alongside other defendants on wooden seats beneath the bench as lawyers argued for the case to be thrown out citing procedural errors . When the court reconvenes on Friday it will either rule that the hearing continues, or will uphold their objections that to do so would amount to a denial of fair process.

Much is at stake. The trial is a preamble to proceedings that could escalate when investigating magistrates conclude a separate inquiry into the much more serious charges of people smuggling, fraud, membership of a criminal organization and money laundering, also leveled at the 24 aid workers – felonies under Greek law that carries 25-year prison terms. Although the investigation, first opened four years ago, has not yet led to any indictments, it has exacerbated an ordeal that Binder has described as “a sword of Damocles” with the lives of the accused put on hold until it concludes.

“If they thought we were the heinous criminals that they allege we are, I’d have thought they’d want us in prison as soon as possible,” he sighed standing outside the courthouse in the island’s port town.

“But here we are, four years on, being tried for the misdemeanors and even if on Friday we have the best outcome we could still have to wait another 15 years for the felonies trial to begin.”

Greece’s center-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 described by the European Parliament as “the largest case of criminalization of solidarity in Europe”.

Standing next to a banner emblazoned with the words “death of Europe.” [sic] values” Grace O’Sullivan, an Irish Green party MEP, deplored what she described as “the barefaced political motivations” behind the charges.

Irish Green party MEP Grace O'Sullivan, who has accused Greece of criminalizing migrant solidarity workers, in Mytilene this week.
Irish Green party MEP Grace O’Sullivan, who has accused Greece of criminalizing migrant solidarity workers, in Mytilene this week. Photograph: Helena Smith/The Guardian

“It’s rare for MEPs to weigh in on individual cases in national courts,” she said, “but this case has proven to be so full of barefaced political motivations intended at shutting down all search and rescue operations on the EU’s borders, that political leadership must make his voice heard. We should be rewarding humanitarians for living up to the EU’s proclaimed values, and yet here we are threatening them with 25 years in prison.”

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