(Athens, January 26, 2023) – Greek authorities have brought unfounded charges against two migrants’ rights defenders, Panayote Dimitras and Tommy Olsen, linked to their peaceful activism, Human Rights Watch said today. The case is part of a wider pattern of prosecutions of activists working with migrants.
The activists were charged by Greek judicial authorities on the island of Kos for “forming or joining for profit and by profession a criminal organization with the purpose of facilitating the entry and stay of third country nationals into Greek territory.” They are alleged to have done this by sending information to Greek authorities about the details and whereabouts of newly arrived migrants, so that the migrants could claim asylum in Greece. The court also issued restrictions on Dimitras sought by the prosecution that are preventing his organization from doing its lawful work.
“Both Dimitras and Olsen have spent years shedding light on human rights violations taking place at Greece’s borders and sought justice for those affected,” said Eva Cossé, senior Greece researcher at Human Rights Watch. “Rather than address those abuses, the Greek authorities are trying to silence the messenger and intimidate those working to defend the rights of people on the move.”
The authorities should drop all charges against the two men and end the restrictions sought by the prosecution from the court on Dimitras, Human Rights Watch said.
Dimitras is head and founder of the Greek Helsinki Monitor (GHM) nongovernmental group and a prominent Greek human rights defender who has been active for 30 years. Olsen, who is based in Norway, is founder and director of the Aegean Boat Report (ABR), a Norwegian nongovernmental group founded in 2018 that monitors the attempts of asylum seekers and migrants to cross the Aegean Sea as well as the human rights violations committed against them, including illegal pushbacks.
Dimitras was indicted for alerting authorities about the arrival of migrants on the Greek islands of Kos and Farmakonisi on July 13, 2021. At the time, Dimitras sent several emails to the Hellenic Police, the Hellenic Coast Guard, the Greek migration authorities, the United Nations Refugee Agency in Greece, and the Greek Ombudsman listing the migrants’ names and nationalities and informing the officials that the migrants wanted to apply for asylum. This is something he had been doing routinely.
The indictment alleges that Olsen “facilitated the entry and residence of third country nationals into Greek territory” in cooperation with Dimitras and two alleged human traffickers. The indictment further states that Olsen sent a “message via e-mail to the Greek authorities including the details of the third country nationals, as well as their location in order for them to join the asylum procedures.” Olsen’s lawyer told Human Rights Watch that he received official notification about the case against him on January 2, 2023.
On December 20, 2022, Dimitras appeared before the investigative judge of Kos to respond to the charges against him. On January 24, Dimitras was served a Judicial Council decision, issued at the request of prosecutors, banning him from carrying out any of GHM’s activities, including a prohibition on communicating “with irregularly entering foreigners” as a preventative measure pending trial.
The Judicial Council deals with procedural matters, including disputes arising in the preliminary proceedings between the prosecutor and investigative judge on preventative measures to be imposed. The Judicial Council further imposed a ban on Dimitras leaving the country, a 10,000 Euro bail, and a requirement to report bimonthly to the police.
Dimitras is GHM’s main representative and preventing him from carrying out the group’s activities effectively suspends most of its work. Dimitras told Human Rights Watch that before issuing its preventative measures, the Judicial Council had failed to examine procedural objections he had submitted in his case, including whether the Kos court has jurisdiction in this matter.
The day after Dimitras appeared before the investigative judge, three confidential files related to his case were leaked and published by online media. Information about the case against both Dimitras and Olsen had been leaked to the media in October, with Greece’s largest national newspaper, Kathimerini, publishing an article containing details of the investigation in Kos and providing identifying information about the two while not naming them directly.
In September 2020 and July 2021, Greek police announced they had opened similar criminal cases, one against 33 foreign nationals and members of four unnamed nongovernmental groups, and another against 10 foreign nationals. However, it appears that no indictment followed. While Greek police did not publicly name the groups whose staff members were under investigation, pro-government media identified Aegean Boat Report in the 2021 case.
In June 2022, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on human rights defenders, Mary Lawlor, presenting her preliminary findings at the end of a 10-day mission in Greece, described an environment of fear and insecurity for human rights defenders in the country, particularly those defending migrants’ rights. Lawlor warned that human rights defenders in Greece:
not only face criminal sanctions for their activities but are operating in an increasingly hostile environment where the general public is influenced by negative rhetoric from
high-ranking officials and their unfavorable portrayal by mainstream media, often conflating their activities with those of people traffickers and criminal networks.
On January 25, Lawlor warned in a tweet against “what strongly appears to be an arbitrary criminal investigation” against Dimitras and Olsen.
In its Rule of Law report published in July 2022, the European Commission noted the narrowing space for groups working with migrants and asylum seekers in Greece.
In a January 12 statement, the Council of Europe human rights commissioner, Dunja Mijatovic, warned against the prosecution of Dimitras and other human rights defenders, including Sarah Mardini and Sean Binder, and urged Greek authorities “to ensure that human rights defenders and journalists can work safely and freely, by providing an enabling environment for their work and publicly recognizing their important role in a democratic society.”
The Greek authorities have unlawfully pushed back thousands of would-be asylum seekers and migrants to Turkey from the Aegean Sea over the past decade.
“The prosecution of Dimitras and Olsen is meant to send a chilling message to all who dare to seek accountability and defend the rights of migrants,” Cossé said. “The Greek government needs to stop treating human rights defenders as criminals and focus that energy on respecting the rights of people on Greek territory and at its external borders.”