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Greece: Activists who helped migrants go on trial

November 18, 2021

Activists who took part in search and rescue operations off Greece now face charges including human trafficking, espionage, and money laundering.

Migrants and refugees on a rubber boat arrive at the northern island of Lesbos after crossing the Aegean sea from Turkey, in Mytilene
Human Rights Watch (HRW) said the charges are "politically motivated" and will place lives at riskImage: Aris Messinis/AFP

Humanitarian activists on trial in Greece

Two dozen humanitarian activists involved in helping migrants reach Greece went on trial on Thursday. Proceedings began at the Mytilene Misdemeanor Court on the Greek island of Lesbos.

The 24 activists are alleged to be affiliated with Emergency Response Centre International (ERCI) which is a non-profit search and rescue team that took part in operations in Greek territorial waters between 2016 and 2018. They face charges of human trafficking, money laundering, being part of a criminal group, and espionage.

Charges are 'harassment'

Bill van Esveld, associate children's rights director at Human Rights Watch (HRW), said the legal challenges are nothing short of harassment.

"The Greek authorities' misuse of the criminal justice system to harass these humanitarian rescuers seems designed to deter future rescue efforts, which will only put lives at risk," Van Esveld said.

"The slipshod investigation and absurd charges, including espionage, against people engaged in life-saving work reeks of politically motivated prosecution," he added.

HRW has called on the embassies of foreign defendants, which includes Germany, to send observers to monitor proceedings.

Fundraising or money laundering?

HRW said the charges "perversely misrepresent” what activists were doing, deeming search-and-rescue operations as a smuggling criminal ring.

The rights watchdog pointed out that legitimate fundraising activity was being mischaracterized as money laundering.

Two of the defendants, one a Syrian national and the other Irish may also face a felony investigation which could result in a separate trial.

Twenty-four people have drowned in the Eastern Mediterranean in 2021 as they attempted to enter Europe according to a HRW statement.

Asylum-seekers in Greece live in fear

kb/dj (AFP, Reuters)