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Widely criticised trial of Irishman in Greece adjourned, moved to appeals court

Greek authorities have been accused of attempting to discourage humanitarian work by criminalising volunteers.

Seán Binder with one of his co-accused, Sarah Mardini.
Seán Binder with one of his co-accused, Sarah Mardini.
Image: Amnesty International

Updated Nov 18th 2021, 2:16 PM

THE TRIAL OF an Irish man and two dozen other humanitarian activists who helped migrants reach Greece three years ago was adjourned today shortly after opening and moved to an appeals court.

Seán Binder, a 27-year-old German national who grew up in Ireland, is accused of espionage, forgery and assisting a criminal organisation – charges that could see him face up to eight years in prison. 

He is also facing a number of felony charges that could result in a sentence of up to 25 years. 

Binder travelled to Lesbos in 2017 and volunteered with a Greek non-profit group called Emergency Response Centre International (ERCI), to help people arriving on boats who were in distress off the Greek shores.

One of his fellow volunteers, 25-year-old Syrian refugee Sarah Mardini, is also accused of the same offences.

Mardini and her sister Yusra arrived in Greece as refugees in 2015. They famously swam for over three hours, dragging a boat with them after the engine failed and it began to sink, saving the lives of 18 fellow passengers. A Netflix series based on their story began production this year.

Binder and Mardini were arrested in 2018 on charges including smuggling, espionage, unlawful use of radio frequencies, and fraud. They spent more than 100 days in prison before being released on bail in December 2018.

Today defence lawyer Haris Petsikos told the media outside that the court had ruled it was “not competent to judge this case”. 

The case was moved to an appeals court as a lawyer is among those accused, Petsikos said. No date was given for the new trial.

Speaking after the hearing, Binder said:

“I feel very angry… because we have to wait years more. There’s no semblance of fair trial.”

He added:

“Today’s decision is further proof of the absurdity of this case. All we have done is assist people seeking safety at a time of need. After today’s decision, our lives are once again left on hold.”

He said the legal limbo was blocking independent rescue efforts and costing lives at sea.

sarah-mardini-and-sean-binder Seán Binder travelled to Greece in 2017 to volunteer with the ERCI rescue organisation.

 Colm O’Gorman, Executive Director of Amnesty International Ireland said:

“These trumped-up charges are farcical and should never have resulted in Sarah and Seán appearing in court. Today’s adjournment means that having already waited over three years, this ordeal will continue to drag on for Sarah and Seán, leaving them in limbo. We call for the Greek authorities to uphold their human rights obligations, and drop the charges against Sarah and Seán.”

“Amnesty International is dismayed by the decision by the Greek authorities to criminalise Sarah and Sean. We stand alongside Seán and Sarah and will continue campaigning until justice is fully delivered, their human rights are respected and upheld and all charges against them dropped.”

Binder and his co-accused also face felony charges including people smuggling, fraud, being part of a criminal organisation and money laundering which, could lead to up to 25 years imprisonment.

There has been widespread condemnation of the action taken by Greek authorities, both from human rights organisations and politicians. 

O’Gorman, had earlier described the charges as “obscene” and an attempt by authorities to discourage people from offering humanitarian aid to migrants.

Speaking to The Journal, he said the European Union had put in place “disastrous policy” which has sought to block people who need safe and legal access to protection in Europe. 

He said this had left migrants vulnerable to smugglers and led to people deciding to take dangerous journeys to seek asylum. 

“Humanitarians like Sean and Sarah have stepped up to do things like try to rescue people from drowning, providing them with  warm blankets and some supports when they arrived,” he said.

In a 2020 report Amnesty International detailed ways in which European governments have deployed restrictive and punitive measures against people who defend refugees and migrants’ rights.

Dozens of prosecutions have been launched against individuals and NGOs, including Médecins Sans Frontieres, in Italy, Greece, France and Switzerland. 

O’Gorman said the attempt to prosecute and jail humanitarian workers and volunteers amounts to “humanity being criminalised” by Greece and by Europe. 

“As things stand Seán and Sarah will go on trial and could face up to 25 years in prison on the most extraordinary charges, they make no sense and are beyond frivolous,” he said.

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“This is clearly meant to send a message to deter people from undertaking humanitarian work to rescue people from drowning or doing other things like providing blankets. These aren’t things that should even be left to volunteers or human rights organisations, this is what European States should be doing.”

O’Gorman said the current situation with thousands of migrants on the boarder between Belarus and Poland is just another example of migrants being used “as pawns to sure up populist support”.

Leaders use them as a wedge issue, portraying refugees as this unmanageable volume of people who are a threat to how society functions. Yes there are a significant number of refugees in urgent need of protection to and safety to rebuild their lives but the vast majority of refugees are hosted in poor and middle income countries, not wealthy countries. 

Human rights legal firm Leigh Day has said there have been several breaches of international human rights law in Binder’s case to date.

Binder approached Leigh Day to commission a legal opinion on the legality in international law of his arrest, pre-trial detention and proposed trial for alleged offences committed whilst volunteering on search and rescue missions for ERCI.

Partner at the firm Tessa Gregory said the case is important as it shows “what appears to be a disturbing trend towards criminalising human rights defenders who are working for recognised NGOs seeking to help refugees”.

“We urge the Greek authorities to review Seán’s case immediately to prevent any further potential breaches of his human rights,” she said. “Urgent reconsideration needs to be given to whether his criminal trial should go ahead at all.”

A number of Irish MEPs have also called on the Greek government to drop the charges.

Green Party MEP Grace O’Sullivan, who attended a protest in support of Binder and his co-accused in Brussels on Tuesday said the Irishman had shown  “humanity to those fleeing places of inhumanity and terror”.

“This is not just the right thing to do, it is international law,” she said. “Those in distress at sea must be rescued and rescue workers must be protected.”

OSullivan Cuffe Amnesty Event3 MEPs Grace O'Sullivan and Ciarán Cuffe at a protest in Brussels this week.

Her party colleague Ciarán Cuffe, MEP, said the European Union has long prided itself as “a bastion of democratic values”.

“But when the Greek government threatens to imprison citizens for their humanitarian actions, it is signalling a departure from those values,” he said.

“Greece faces a choice this week. Will it earn its global reputation as the cradle of democracy? Or will it turn further towards the system of border militarism which has been pushed by the far-right for years?”

- With reporting from AFP.

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