Sarah Mardini and Sean Binder were thrown in jail on baseless charges for helping rescue migrants and asylum seekers in the Mediterranean Sea in August 2018. Four years and four months later, they and 22 other defendants in the “largest case of criminalization of solidarity in Europe” finally had their day in court. While the Court of Appeal of Mytilene, on Lesbos threw out the case, largely on procedural grounds, the humanitarians’ ordeal is far from over.
The failure to translate the indictment for the foreign defendants, and the vagueness of evidence on espionage charges for all the defendants, led the court to send the case back to the prosecutor. Because these are minor offenses charges with a five-year statute of limitations that is about to expire, the case has effectively collapsed, except for two Greek defendants the court referred to a lower court to stand trial for charges of forgery and assisting a “criminal organization.” That organization is actually a search-and-rescue group that was registered in Greece and cooperated with the Greek coast guard.
While the decision appropriately recognized some basic procedural flaws, it did not recognize that saving lives and solidarity with asylum seekers is not a crime. In fact, the defendants are still at risk from a related serious crime investigation, which prosecutors had separated from the minor offenses charges so that these could be tried before expiring. No charges have yet been issued in the serious crime case, but according to the information so far made public, it appears to misrepresent the search-and-rescue group’s humanitarian operations as human smuggling by a criminal organization, and mischaracterizes legitimate fund-raising activities by the group, which was a registered nonprofit organization, as money laundering. Each serious crime carries five to 10 years in prison, and a third charge, facilitation of illegal entry for foreign nationals, carries 10 to 15 years for each person whose entry is facilitated.
While the Greek authorities use the justice system to unfairly criminalize those helping people at sea and on land, they continue to carry out illegal and sometimes deadly pushbacks of migrants across the Greek border and seek to punish those who call them out.
It’s past time for the Greek government to stop criminalizing human rights defenders and end its own illegal policies that deny people’s right to seek asylum.