(Athens) – The authorities in Greece should immediately put an end to the smear campaign and judicial harassment of a prominent rights activist, Panayote Dimitras, Human Rights Watch said today. In late May, 2023, Dimitras learned via media reports that Greece’s Anti-Money Laundering Authority had ordered his assets frozen pending an investigation of alleged misuse of European Union and other funding related to his organization’s work.
The case against Dimitras is part of a wider pattern of smear campaigns and prosecutions of activists working with migrants in Greece that the Unite Nations and Council of Europe bodies have heavily criticized. In late 2022, Greek authorities brought unfounded charges against Dimitras and another activist, Tommy Olsen, for their work on shedding light on human rights violations taking place at Greece’s borders and seeking justice for those affected.
“Trying to intimidate activists who are exposing human rights violations committed by Greek officials has no place in an EU member state,” said Eva Cossé, senior Europe researcher at Human Rights Watch. “The European Commission should step in and press Greece to immediately stop harassing civil society groups and activists.”
Given its responsibility for oversight of EU project funding, the European Commission is in a good position to dispel any unfounded allegations that EU funds have been misused, Human Rights Watch said.
Dimitras, a prominent Greek human rights defender and founder and head of the Greek Helsinki Monitor, told Human Rights Watch on June 13 that he had not yet received official notification from the Anti-Money Laundering Authority.
Mainstream media, including the government-controlled Athens News Agency, have publicized what appears to be leaked information on the alleged investigation, in some cases alongside a picture of Dimitras. The money laundering case reportedly concerns “funding Dimitras received, mainly from the EU, to support human rights causes, that was used for other purposes than those claimed,” according to a Kathimerini [BP1] article. Dimitras said the only EU funds his organization receives, as published on the European Commission’s website, are for the fight against hate speech and called these claims unfounded “slander.”
On June 12, the United Nations special rapporteur on human rights defenders, Mary Lawlor, tweeted that “leaks of such investigations are commonly used to smear human rights defenders” and failure to notify Dimitras frustrates his access to a remedy.
This is not the first time confidential information from the anti money laundering agency on Dimitras has been leaked to the media. On January 10, Ta Nea (The News), a mainstream newspaper, published an article saying that the head of the agency “has ordered checks” on Dimitras’ organization.
In response, Dimitras filed a complaint against the head and members of the agecy for a breach of professional confidentiality, breach of duty for the leak and for failing to investigate the leak, and defamation. There have been other leaks to the media in the past about investigations against other human rights defenders, followed by media reports insinuating that the defenders were committing crimes.
Separately, Dimitras, along with Tommy Olsen, head of the Norway-based organization Aegean Boat Report, is under prosecution 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,” according to the indictment. Confidential files and information regarding these charges have been leaked to the media on at least two occasions.
Human Rights Watch reported on the situation in January and said that all charges should be dropped and court-imposed restrictions lifted, including a travel ban on Dimitras and a ban on carrying out any Greek Helsinki Monitor activities related to migration that prevent the organization from doing its lawful work.
Sixty-six Greek and international civil society organizations have signed a statement in support of Dimitras, calling for an end to prosecutions and smear campaigns against activists and nongovernmental groups working with migrants.
Lawlor, who visited Greece in June 2022, expressed concern that people assisting migrants and asylum seekers “have been subjected to smear campaigns, a changing regulatory environment, threats and attacks and the misuse of criminal law against them, to a shocking degree.”
The Council of Europe human rights commissioner, Dunja Mijatovic, has 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.”