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Explainer: Why have Greece brought a case against Seán Binder and 23 other volunteers?

The case is before the Greek courts this week.

- Stephen McDermott, reporting from Lesbos

A GREEK COURT will sit again tomorrow to hear a case involving Irishman Seán Binder and 23 others charged with crimes relating to alleged people smuggling and spying off the island of Lesbos.

Binder and his co-accused could face lengthy jail terms if they are found guilty of misdemeanour charges including espionage and criminal membership.

The case has proven controversial because the defendants, all of whom deny the charges, say they volunteered for a Greek NGO to help when Lesbos was overwhelmed with migrant arrivals from nearby Turkey.

The hearing comes at a time when Greek officials have engaged in verbal attacks on asylum support groups and with the country’s conservative government vowing to make Greece “less attractive” to migrants.

So how exactly did the case arise? And what exactly are the allegations against the 24 co-accused?

Migrant arrivals

The case centres on 24 volunteers who worked with a Greek non-profit called Emergency Response Centre International (ERCI), which provided humanitarian aid and carried out search-and-rescue operations in the Mediterranean Sea between 2016 and 2018.

Irish interest in the case has focused on one of the volunteers: Seán Binder, a German citizen who was raised in Castlegregory, Co Kerry. He began working with the group on Lesbos – a Greek island that is just 11km away from Turkey at its closest point – in 2017.

In an interview with The Journal ahead of his trial last week, Binder explained that he specifically volunteered with ERCI because they had a good relationship with the Greek authorities at the time.

He said the group worked closely with police and coast guard when he arrived in Lesbos, and that the NGO trained authorities in how to do CPR and provided supplies to Frontex, the EU’s border management agency.

Screenshot 2023-01-12 at 17.28.07 The island of Lesbos (left) is just 11km away from Turkey at its closest point Google Maps Google Maps

By that time, Lesbos had become a key gateway into the European Union during Europe’s migration crisis, which began in 2015.

At the height of the influx, some 5,000 migrants and refugees, mostly from war-torn Syria, landed on the island’s beaches on a daily basis.

Lesbos soon had the highest concentration of migrants in Greece, with poor conditions in the camp of Moria (which has since been destroyed): over 8,300 people lived in the camp by 2018, triple the capacity it was originally designed for.

According to UN data, more than 35,000 migrants arrived in Greece the year Binder first volunteered, including almost 30,000 via the sea. The previous two years, 2015 and 2016, saw more than one million refugees arrive in the country.

By the end of 2017, anger was growing on Lesbos with claims that too many refugees were being hosted on the island and its then-mayor Spyros Galinos accusing the Greek government of turning Lesbos into a “concentration camp” and not moving arrivals on. 

“We are utterly opposed to policies that are turning Lesbos and other border areas into concentration camps where all human dignity is denied,” Galinos is reported to have said at the time.

First arrests

In February 2018 Binder was working a routine shift for ERCI when police arrived and arrested himself and another co-defendant.

He was released without charge and continued volunteering, but was arrested again in August 2018, alongside two other people.

At the time, a police statement said that the trio were engaged in “activities of an organised criminal network that systematically facilitated the illegal entry of foreigners” into Greece.

Police alleged that members of the group were in contact with migrants on social media groups and “actively assisted” their illegal entry into Greece from 2015 onwards, and that they illegally monitored radio traffic from the coastguard and the EU border agency Frontex.

Those arrested with Binder included Greek national Nassos Karakitsos and Sarah Mardini, a 23-year-old Syrian refugee who, alongside her sister Yusra, employed her swimming skills to pull a waterlogged boat with another 18 people onboard to Greece from Turkey.

The sisters’ story was subsequently made into a Netflix film, The Swimmers, and Yusra participated on the refugee team at the 2016 Olympics in Brazil.

bambi-award-ceremony-berlin Sarah Mardini (R) with her sister Yusra (L) in 2016 DPA / PA Images DPA / PA Images / PA Images

Binder, Mardini and Karakitsos were detained in prison for more than 100 days as part of pre-trial detention, before being conditionally released in December 2018. Binder and Mardini immediately left Greece, while Karakitsos has been unable to leave the country.

Others were subsequently arrested, including ERCI director Panos Moraitis and programme director Mirella Alexou, as police sought 30 people in what they described as an operation to dismantle a “criminal network” (which ERCI and the defendants denied).

The 24 defendants were later hit with misdemeanour charges by the Greek authorities, including facilitating illegal migration into the EU and counts of espionage-related offences, illegal access to state communications and assisting criminal activity.

A lawyer for Binder and Mardini previously told the AFP news agency that the pair face five-year prison sentences for the misdemeanour charges. 

Binder, Mardini and Karakitsos are also being investigated for – but have not been charged with – a number of felony counts including espionage, people smuggling, membership of a criminal group and money laundering.

Those felony counts carry jail terms of up to 25 years, and will be tried separately to the misdemeanour charges.

Court hearings

This week’s sittings are not the first time that a court in Mytilene, the capital of Lesbos, has heard the case involving the 24 volunteers.

An initial hearing took place at the Mytilene Misdemeanour Court on 19 November 2021, but was adjourned shortly after opening before it was moved to an appeals court, with the court ruling that it could not judge the case because one of those accused is a lawyer.

Ahead of that hearing, over 70 MEPs sent an open letter to the European Commission and the Greek government, drafted by Green Party MEP for Ireland South Grace O’Sullivan, expressing concerns at the charges against the 24 co-accused.

Afterwards, Binder said that there were a number of issues with the charges and how they had been brought.  

He claimed that the rights of himself and his other co-defendants were being undermined because the indictments were not translated from Greek to a language they could understand, that they were served without the right documentation, and that some defendants were not allowed to go to their own hearings, amid a host of other issues.

2.70509345 Seán Binder outside a court in Lesbos on Tuesday Panagiotis Balaskas / AP/Via PA Wire Panagiotis Balaskas / AP/Via PA Wire / AP/Via PA Wire

Amnesty International also criticised the decision to adjourn the trial in the wake of that decision, describing the charges against Binder and Mardini in particular as “farcical” and “trumped up”.

The case was heard again on Tuesday of this week, when defence teams focused on procedural issues around how the charges were brought.

The court heard submissions from multiple solicitors for each of the co-accused, who argued that charges against the defendants were too vague to enable each of the accused to properly defend themselves.

Solicitors claimed that subpoenas issued by the prosecution did not contain any evidence for the crimes alleged to have been committed, and did not refer to specific dates on which the alleged crimes took place.

They also told the court that the prosecution alleged that crimes occurred in various, unspecific time periods, which meant individual defendants did not know the exact time and day that they were accused of doing something.

The court could rule on these objections when it reconvenes on Friday.

“We’ve spent the entire morning giving reason after reason, irrefutable reasons why this trial could not continue. Because the prosecution has made mistake after mistake, they’ve violated our human rights, they’ve made procedural errors,” Binder said after Tuesday’s adjournment.

“All we’re asking for, all our lawyers have demanded, is that the rule of law is respected, that Greek laws are respected. We want the rule of law. And now we’ll find out on Friday whether we get the rule of law or the rule of flaws.”

Binder has argued that countries within the European Union have a legal obligation, particularly under the European Human Rights Convention, to help migrants in need of assistance as ERCI say they were doing at the time they were arrested.


As well as receiving international media coverage, the case has been the subject of criticism by rights groups and European politicians.

Green MEP Grace O’Sullivan, who attended the initial court hearing in Lesbos this week, defended the volunteers in the wake of the adjournment for helping those arriving in Greece at the height of Europe’s migrant crisis.

“These are people who try to protect the rule of law in terms of the United Nations laws on rescuing at sea, whereby people like Seán [Binder] – humanitarians who see people in absolute distress – have gone in as search-and-rescue and taken them out of the sea,” she said.

original Green Party MEP Grace O'Sullivan with Seán Binder Grace O'Sullivan / Twitter Grace O'Sullivan / Twitter / Twitter

A report by the European Parliament in June 2021 described the case as “currently the largest case of criminalisation of solidarity in Europe” and said that the systematic intimidation and harassment faced by those who have been charged was “as damaging as formal criminalisation”.

“It causes serious financial pressure, reputational harm, exposes volunteers to danger, forces temporary suspension of activity, and ultimately the termination of rescue work,” the report also said.

More broadly, the case has led to what Binder has called a “chilling effect” on NGOs working in Lesbos to help migrants who continue to arrive on the shores of Greece.

The arrests and charges forced ERCI to cease its operations, which as well as search-and-rescue included providing medical care and informal education to migrants and asylum seekers.

Wies de Graeve from Amnesty International, who is an observer at the trial, said similar this week, claiming the delay from November 2021 was a ploy to prevent NGOs involved in rescue operations from working in Greece.

Around 50 humanitarian workers are currently facing prosecution in Greece, following a trend in Italy which has also criminalised the provision of aid to migrants.

Last month, an Italian court heard the latest stage in a case against volunteers on the rescue vessel Iuventa, who are accused of colluding with smugglers.

Despite in-depth investigations by media and NGOs, alongside abundant testimony from alleged victims, Greek authorities have consistently denied pushing back people trying to land on its shores.

Greece’s conservative government, which was elected in 2019, has vowed to make the country “less attractive” to migrants.

Part of that strategy involves extending an existing 40km wall on the Turkish border in the Evros region by 80 kilometres.

There is also increasing evidence that Greek authorities may be conducting illegal summary deportations of people arriving on the country’s territory without allowing them to apply for asylum, a procedure known as “pushbacks”. However, authorities in the country deny this is occurring.

- Contains some reporting from Press Association and © AFP 2023.