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Greece: Activists go on trial for helping migrants

November 18, 2021

In Greece, the trial of 24 activists accused of helping refugees reach Europe by boat has started. Among other things, they are charged with human trafficking and espionage. If found guilty, they face 25 years in prison.

Griechenland | Lesbos
Nassos Karakitsos on a resuce mission on LesbosImage: ERCI

Bringing closure to migrants' families

When Sean Binder and Sarah Mardini were arrested and put in prison on the Greek island of Lesbos in February 2018, the police report referred to them as "No. 7" and "No. 8."

"I am actually not sure if I am seven or eight, but it was me and Sara in the police car that day, so I am definitely one of them," said 27-year-old Binder, an Irish national. Uncertainty has been his constant companion over the past three years. He still doesn't understand why he and Mardini are facing serious criminal charges such as people smuggling, membership of a criminal organization and espionage. As far as he is concerned, they just came to Lesbos to prevent people from drowning at sea.

Refugee activist Sean Binder (l.) with his lawyers before his trial in Greece
Sean Binder's lawyers say the trial against Binder is a jokeImage: Angelos Tsatsis

At the time of their arrest, dozens of rubber dinghies were arriving on Greece's third biggest island every day. These dinghies brought refugees from Turkey to the shores of the European Union, a place where they hoped their human rights would be respected.

For Binder, helping people is not a heroic act, it's simply common sense: "What would you do if you see somebody in the water and they are reaching a hand out to hold you. You would obviously put a hand out and pull them in. As soon as you have done so, you have committed the same crime as I have committed," he said.

'Just people who wanted to help other people'

Binder and Mardini were working for the NGO Emergency Response Center International (ERCI). Their coordinator at the time was Nassos Karakitsos from Athens, who had previously served in the Greek navy. 40-year-old Karakitsos said he values human life above all else and did not want to just stand by while people who were seeking international protection were at risk of drowning in the Aegean: "We are just people who wanted to help other people. And there were thousands like us in Lesbos, Samos and Chios," he told DW.

Nassos Karakitsos, coordinator of the NGO Emergency Response Center International (ERCI) from Athens
Nassos Karakitsos says: We always worked closely with the authoritiesImage: Florian Schmitz

The trial of Binder and Mardini and 21 other volunteers was adjourned due to procedural errors shortly after it opened.

The defendants reject accusations that they acted outside the legal framework: "We had daily communication with the Coast Guard," said Karakitsos. They used WhatsApp to keep each other informed, the same messenger service that the Greek authorities are now trying to use as evidence against them, claiming that they used encrypted messages to facilitate irregular immigration. "The Coast Guard called me many times to assist them in rescue missions, not just refugees, but also locals," he adds. "We were cooperating on many levels."

'Baseless' case against activists

Zacharias Kesses cannot hide his grin behind his face mask as he explained the trial in his office in Athens. Kesses, who is representing Binder and Mardini, is absolutely certain that the prosecutor has no case against his clients. "The case is totally baseless, there is no legal basis, there is no evidence, there is nothing apart from police speculation on the case," he said, going on to explain how the authorities singled out certain individuals from a WhatsApp-group that included 446 people and organizations — including the UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency — in order to coordinate the rescue mission.

Refugee activists help migrants to enter a boat in the sea nearby the Greek island of Lesbos
The NGO ERCI conducted hundreds of rescue missions in LesbosImage: ERCI

It is alleged that his clients knew about incoming boats and did not inform the authorities. But Kesses is adamant that these allegations are entirely fabricated. He says that the information about incoming boats came from open sources and was available to everybody. "These people were not receiving secret information that they were hiding from the police. We have submitted solid evidence that the NGO ERCI, which Sean, Sara and Nassos worked for, was in direct cooperation with the port police. Each time they had information, they informed the port police, in order to unite the forces."

Legal limbo for three years

For Kesses, the accusations against his clients constitute judicial harassment. Moreover, because the investigation is still ongoing, his clients have been left in a legal limbo for three years: "Since December 2018, nothing has been done. The case is in a file somewhere in the office of the investigator. Each year, the investigator has been replaced. Nobody is willing to take on this big case." The Greek judicial system has a reputation for being slow, but this time it's different: "This doesn't usually happen in such high-profile cases. We are speaking here about human trafficking — the heaviest felony in Greece, even heavier than drug trafficking or rape."

Refugee helpers Sean Binder and Nassos Karakitsos on the Greek island of Lesbos
Sean Binder and Nassos Karakitsos working together on LesbosImage: Angelos Tsatsis

Kesses is convinced that his clients will walk free: "I am sure that all of these cases are going to be acquitted. But there is a big gap, and within this gap, judicial harassment finds space to unfold. I trust the system in Greece, but in the meantime, the damage is done."

Tremendous personal cost

The uncertainty surrounding the outcome of the case has been a source of great distress for the defendants. For Binder, a law student, it is hard to sum up the impact it has had on their lives over the past three years: "The weight that we face, the tremendous personal cost, financial cost, professional cost, psychological cost of being in limbo for this long and having these charges over our heads, it's been huge."

In view of all this, Binder is considering taking legal action against the state of Greece: "No matter how you look at this, every aspect of this prosecution is so deeply flawed and so ridiculous, it is an abuse of our human rights."

Nassos Karakitsos, the NGO coordinator, has trouble sleeping and concentrating: "It's like being ill and waiting to die," he said. Karakitsos is studying for a BA in European Culture. If all goes well, he hopes to graduate next year. The idea of the European Union — equality and human rights for everybody — is perfect, he said. Yet the case made against himself, Binder and Mardini tells a very different story.

Mardini, a 26-year-old refugee from Syria, lives in Germany. Her name is on a list of unwanted individuals in Greece. She was deemed a threat to public safety and was barred from re-entering the country. She appealed to have the ban lifted so that she could attend the trial in person, but her appeal was rejected by an administrative court in Athens.

Deterrence and discrimination

Human rights organizations are deeply concerned about what they see as a trend in Europe towards criminalizing institutions and individuals who are committed to the rights of asylum seekers and migrants. They say that cases like the one involving Binder, Mardini and Karakitsos are intended to spread fear among those who want to help refugees.

Giorgos Kosmopoulos of Amnesty International said that humanitarian aid decreases with a loss of transparency: "It's important to have eyes on the ground to tell us what is happening. And it's clear, now in Lesbos there are fewer and fewer independent voices that are able to report from the humanitarian side."

Humanitarian activists on trial in Greece

Edited by: Aingeal Flanagan and Rüdiger Rossig.

Portrait of a man with brown hair and a beard
Florian Schmitz Reporter with a focus on Greece