Aid workers accused of spying go on trial in Greece over refugee rescues

epa09131036 Members of the Turkish Coast Guard take migrants, who were allegedly pushed back from the Greece side, on a boat during a patrol to search and rescue for migrants offshore the Ayvalik district in Balikesir, Turkey, 10 April 2021 (issued 12 April 2012). The Greek island of Lesbos hosts one of the hotspots, an initial reception centers for migrants in European Union. Turkish authorities told epa/Efe that in 2020 around 45 percent of migrants rescued in the Aegean Sea had been pushed back from Greek territory. Most common cases involve migrant vessels being stopped by a Greek patrol when entering Greek waters, but the Turkish coastguard says it has heard lots of migrants describing 'delayed pushback,' when people are returned to the sea days after they reached Lesbos. According to Turkish officials, in this case, a Greek patrol carries the detained migrants to the limit of Greek territorial waters before putting them in a life raft and alerting Ankara. Since the beginning of 2021, Turkey has rescued around 2,700 migrants in the Aegean Sea, and some 1,900 migrants from a pushback. The Norwegian NGO Aegean Boat Report claims, some 558 people have been abandoned on 35 life rafts at sea so far in 2021. Some such incidents have ended with fatalities, the organizations claimed. EPA-EFE/ERDEM SAHIN ATTENTION: This Image is part of a PHOTO SET

LESBOS, Greece, Nov 18 (Reuters) - The trial of 24 aid workers, including a Syrian refugee, involved in refugee rescues began on the Greek island of Lesbos on Thursday amid calls from rights groups that authorities drop the charges of spying and disclosing state secrets.

The aid workers, some of them foreigners, were affiliated with the Emergency Response Center International (ERCI), a nonprofit search-and-rescue group operating on Lesbos from 2016 to 2018. They face up to eight years in prison, convertible into a fine.

They also face more serious felony charges, still being investigated, of people smuggling, belonging to a criminal group and money laundering, which carry 25-year prison sentences.

The defendants deny the charges against them and are expected to plead not guilty.

The European Parliament called it “the largest case of criminalization of solidarity in Europe” in a report in June.

Among those tried is Sarah Mardini, a Syrian refugee who took an overcrowded dinghy to Greece with her sister Yusra in 2015, at the height of Europe’s refugee crisis, and saved the other 19 passengers by pulling their sinking boat to shore for four hours.

Rights groups such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch say the trial is intended to intimidate other aid workers from carrying out their work and have called the charges “farcical” and “politically motivated.”

Mardini and another volunteer, Sean Binder, a German national trained in rescue diving, were arrested in 2018 and spent 107 days in Athens’s maximum security prison in pre-trial detention.

Both left Greece after they were released, and Binder has returned despite his misgivings about the trial. Mardini, who now lives in Germany, is barred from entering the country as a third country national and will be represented by a lawyer.

By Stelios Misinas.

(Additional reporting and writing by Karolina Tagaris in Athens; Editing by Angus MacSwan).


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