Refugee activist facing Greek court left ‘in limbo’ after trial postponed

Sean Binder and 24 aid workers are accused of espionage, forgery and intercepting radio frequencies

An Irish defendant among 24 aid workers accused of espionage in Greece has said he has been left in a legal “limbo” after their trial was postponed, prolonging an ordeal that has highlighted growing hostility towards NGOs involved in migrant solidarity work.

A three-member panel of judges on the Aegean island of Lesbos, where the alleged crimes are said to have occurred, referred the case to a court of appeals citing lack of jurisdiction. It is unclear when the higher tribunal will convene.

“I’m very angry and very disappointed,” 27-year-old law student Sean Binder told the Guardian after a chaotic hearing on Thursday from which the media were banned. “This just means months of more limbo as we wait for justice. I may not have been found guilty today but effectively I’m still not free. The criminalisation of humanitarianism continues.”

The aid workers, almost all volunteers, included Greek and foreigners who had participated in search and rescue work on Lesbos, the Aegean island at the frontline of the refugee crisis.

In addition to spying, they stand accused of forgery and unlawfully intercepting radio frequencies – crimes punishable by up to eight years in prison.

Binder, a trained rescue diver who moved to Lesbos in 2017, also faces charges of human trafficking, money laundering and fraud. The latter is based on allegations that he had used a military Jeep with stolen number plates to enter restricted areas while working for the now defunct NGO Emergency Response Centre International (ERCI).

Sarah Mardini, a competitive swimmer who had helped saved 18 fellow Syrians from drowning when their dinghy sunk off Turkey, stands accused of the same crimes while also volunteering for ERCI. She would have been tried in absentia because of a ban on her entering the country.

Sarah Mardini.
Sarah Mardini. Photograph: MLBariona/Alamy

The pair spent 106 days in pre-trial detention, with Mardini being incarcerated in Athens’ high-security Korydallos prison.

Now 25, she has been granted asylum in Germany. If ultimately convicted both could face 25 years in prison.

Amid calls for the charges to be dropped, supporters had taken to the streets in cities across Europe. Ahead of Thursday’s trial, the European parliament had condemned the prosecution case as the biggest criminalisation of solidarity work underway on the continent.

Human rights groups called the charges “farcical”. Outside Lesbos’ neoclassical court building, protesters held banners reading “saving lives is not a crime”.

“Today’s decision adds to the ordeal of the defendants and compounds the violation of their human rights,” said Giorgos Kosmopoulos, Amnesty International’s senior campaigner on migration, who was monitoring the court hearing. “Sarah and Sean have already paid a huge personal price and it’s time for the charges to be dropped.”

The case is viewed as emblematic for migrant solidarity workers now under unparalleled scrutiny in Europe, with 180 people involved in NGO work across 13 countries currently facing criminalisation.

In Athens, the centre right government of the prime minister, Kyriakos Mitsotakis, has been heavily criticised for what rights groups have decried as its hostile rhetoric towards refugees and NGOs, accentuated by violent expulsions of asylum seekers at Greece’s land and sea borders.

Mitsotakis has angrily denied the alleged pushbacks arguing that Greek patrols “intercept” migrant boats, as EU law allows, until Turkish coastguard vessels collect them – part of a deal, he says, that Brussels and Ankara reached five years ago to stem migrant flows.

But he has accepted his government pursues “a tough but fair” migrant policy as purveyor of south-east Europe’s external borders. “Unless you manage to send a clear signal that you protect your borders, more people will try to enter illegally,” he told the TV show Good Morning Britain on Tuesday.

Humanitarians have complained of mounting harassment as Fortress Europe’s frontiers have become ever more securitised and militarised.

This week, Yanis Varoufakis, who heads the leftwing MeRA 25 opposition party, told the Greek parliament the charges against Binder and Mardini had brought the country international disrepute, saying in “less harsh times” the young activists would be rewarded for their idealism, not prosecuted.

“We did what was legally and morally right, saving people in distress at sea,” Binder said. “There’s not a shred of evidence against us because we did nothing wrong. It makes no sense. Sarah was detained in prison for three months because she was deemed a flight risk and when the trial happens she is not even allowed to attend it.”

Zacharias Kesses, the criminal lawyer representing the activists, said while there was no knowing when the case would next be heard, there was room for optimism.

“The judges at a higher three-member court are more experienced,” he said. “That gives us confidence that we’ll have the chance to be heard and our arguments evaluated properly although none of this should ever have come to court in the first place.”


Helena Smith in Athens

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Aid workers warn of catastrophe in Greek refugee camps
At least 24,000 people are trapped in vastly overcrowded Aegean island camps in squalid conditions

Helena Smith in Athens

17, Sep, 2019 @4:00 AM

Article image
On trial for saving lives: the young refugee activist facing a Greek court
Although his allies call the charges against him ‘farcical’, Seán Binder could face years in jail when trial begins this week

Helena Smith in Athens

14, Nov, 2021 @8:15 AM

Article image
Greek refugee camps 'beyond desperate' as islanders protest in Athens
Humanitarian workers say people are living in vastly overcrowded camps with lack of access to clean water, sanitation facilities and health services

Helena Smith in Athens

06, Dec, 2017 @9:55 AM

Article image
Refugee babies detained on Greek island 'not getting adequate milk'
Asylum seekers being held in detention centre allege babies under six months old are being given just 100ml of milk a day

Patrick Kingsley Migration correspondent

19, Apr, 2016 @12:36 PM

Article image
Greek refugee camp for 640 people is found to be housing 3,745
Unaccompanied children sleeping on floors at facility on island of Samos, EU audit says

Daniel Boffey in Brussels

13, Nov, 2019 @3:13 PM

Article image
Lesbos refugee camp at centre of Greek misuse of EU funds row
European anti-fraud agency investigates irregularities after report alleges defence minister benefited from camp funds

Helena Smith in Athens

26, Sep, 2018 @12:41 PM

Article image
Dozens of refugees believed dead after boat sinks in Greek waters
Coastguard says survivors unlikely in incident that comes days after more than 160 people drowned off Libyan coast

Helena Smith in Athens

22, Dec, 2021 @5:56 PM

Article image
Ambassador in limbo makes plea for Afghans to be allowed into EU
Former Afghan government’s ambassador in Greece appalled by Athens’ media blitz against ‘illegal migrant flows’

Helena Smith in Athens

27, Sep, 2021 @4:00 AM

Article image
Oxfam condemns EU over 'inhumane' Lesbos refugee camp
Violence so bad that women wear nappies at night to avoid leaving tents, report says

Daniel Boffey in Brussels and Helena Smith in Athens

09, Jan, 2019 @12:01 AM

Article image
Syrian refugee wins appeal against forced return to Turkey
Decision by Greek asylum service to overturn deportation order throws EU-Turkey migration deal into chaos

Apostolis Fotiadis and Helena Smith in Athens, and Patrick Kingsley in Istanbul

20, May, 2016 @3:48 PM