Greek court drops espionage charges against activists involved in migrant rescues

A Greek court has dropped espionage charges against 24 activists involved in rescuing migrants, including a Syrian refugee and competitive swimmer who inspired a Netflix film.

In the ruling read to the chamber, the court admitted procedural faults.

They included insufficient translation of prosecution documents, and a lack of access to interpreters for the defendants.

The ruling came hours after the United Nations called for the charges to be dropped.

The European parliament branded the trial, which began in November 2021, as “the largest case of criminalisation of solidarity in Europe”.

The activists, however, still face an investigation on charges of human trafficking, money laundering, fraud, and the unlawful use of radio frequencies.

Among those charged is Syrian swimmer Sarah Mardini, whose family story and dramatic crossing of the Aegean Sea in 2015 inspired Netflix film The Swimmers.

The film traces the journey of Ms Mardini and her sister, Olympic swimmer Yusra, as they flee the civil war in Damascus in 2015 and make a harrowing journey to Berlin.

Ms Mardini, who has lived in exile in Germany since 2015, was arrested in 2018 while volunteering for a search-and-rescue organisation on Lesbos, where they assisted people in distress at sea.

“I was arrested because I was handing over water and blankets and translating for the refugees arriving every night on the shoreline,” she said in a TED interview.

Ms Mardini and fellow volunteer Sean Binder spent more than three months in jail in Lesbos after their arrest on misdemeanour charges that included espionage, forgery and unlawful use of radio frequencies.

Syrian refugee Sarah Mardini, who was held in Greece on migrant smuggling charges. AFP

The two are also under investigation for felony offences, but prosecutors have not brought any of the more serious charges against them.

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

Greece, which had about a million migrants and refugees cross to its shores from nearby Turkey at the height of the refugee crisis in 2015, has clamped down on migration, erecting a fence along much of its land border with Turkey and increasing sea patrols near its islands.

Greek officials say they have a strict but fair migration policy.

They also deny, despite increasing evidence to the contrary, conducting illegal summary deportations of people arriving on Greek territory without allowing them to apply for asylum, a procedure known as “pushbacks”.

The country’s conservative government, 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 80km.

Tens of thousands of people fleeing Africa and the Middle East try to enter Greece, Italy and Spain in the hope of better lives in the European Union.

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

Updated: January 13, 2023, 3:12 PM

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