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#FreeHomayoun: The Criminalization of Displaced Persons and Rescue Workers under EU “Anti-Smuggling” Guidelines

The criminalisation of people on the move is now common practice in Greece. However, behind the numbers of detainees are always people and their stories. This is the story of Homayoun Sabetara...

Homayoun Sabetara is currently incarcerated in Trikala prison, Greece, awaiting court proceeding for his appeals trial in  April 2024. He has been charged with smuggling seven people into the country, along with his unauthorized border crossing. His court date was delayed for over a year, while he remained in custody on remand. With the support of Seebrücke Schweiz and Borderline Europe, Mahtab Sabetara, Homayouns daughter who has already been living in Germany initiated the campaign #FreeHomayoun, advocating for Homayoun and the thousands of other displaced people who are being criminalized by the justice systems of EU member states for attempting to find safety or assisting and caring for people on the move. With the former Lesvos-based volunteers standing trial this month, among them Nassos Karakitsos and Sean Binder, it is important to once again shift the focus on the issue of criminalization.

Homayoun’s Story: In Search for Safety

When Homayoun’s daughter was able to obtain a student visa to study in Berlin, it became his goal to join them in Germany. Homayoun had many reasons to want to leave his home in Iran, such as the issues he was facing with his medical care. Most importantly however, he was continuously receiving threats from the Iranian authorities. The Sabetara family’s fear of the government had already led them to move into a new house, and they soon began searching for ways to relocate to Europe. It became clear that Homayoun would be unable to legally leave Iran. In 2021, at 57 years old, he decided to join his daughter in Germany despite these challenging circumstances, starting with his journey westwards to Turkey.

At the border crossing to Greece, the person who was supposed to transport Homayoun and a group of other displaced people, suddenly demanded a higher price than the one previously agreed. Since Homayoun was not carrying enough money with him, he was ordered to take over control of the vehicle and drive it into Greece himself. Homayoun’s pleads to be brought back in Turkey were met with the threat of leaving him behind in the woods, alone. Fearing for his life, he followed the orders. The car he was now driving was carrying seven people, three of which were hiding in the trunk. When they arrived in Thessaloniki, officers of the Greek police began chasing them. All passengers were able to disembark, but Homayoun was arrested.

Life in Prison: Facing an Unjust System

He was then transported to Korydallos prison in Athens, where he remained from August 2021 until June 2023. During these two years, Homayoun was faced with dehumanizing, dangerous prison conditions, which left him with lifelong health problems. Staying in a cellar, at times together with as many as twenty other people, Homayoun developed severe respiratory issues and a chronic cough. Yet he was not even supplied with basic medicine such as asthma spray. When he was relocated to the prison in Tricala, the situation did not improve. Even though Homayoun had undergone an operation to remove a cancerous tumor six years ago, he is not supplied with the medication he should be taking regularly, nor is he able to receive the necessary check-ups. Finally, the catastrophic flooding which affected central Greece in September 2023 flooded the prison facilities, and prisoners were allowed only one hour of drinking water per day.

Homayoun is faced with a prison sentence that might exceed a hundred years. This was announced at his first court hearing which took place in September 2023, over two years after his initial arrest. The public prosecutor demands that his sentence corresponds to ten years for each person that was sitting in the car he had been forced to drive, in addition to fifteen years for each person located in the trunk. However, due to the efforts of Homayoun’s lawyer and the defense witness statements offered by his daughter, his sentence is reduced to 25 years, and then to 18 years.

Homayoun’s appeals procedure is set to begin in April 2024. Until then, Mahtab Sabetara is planning to raise as much awareness for his case as possible,...with the campaign #FreeHomayoun on the 22nd of each month. On these days, Homayoun’s network will stand in solidarity not only with him, but with every person that is facing criminal charges in relation to border crossings in Europe.

The Criminalization of Displaced People

Homayoun Sabetara is one of many people who are incarcerated all over Europe, facing charges of alleged smuggling, and other accusations due to their involvement with assisting people in crossing EU-borders. This month, the trial of former Lesvos-based humanitarian aid workers, among them Sean Binder and Nassos Karakitsos, is resuming, with the next court hearing having been set for this Friday, January 29th. They have been wrongfully accused of espionage and other criminal offenses, in a trial proceeding which has been rescheduled multiple times over the past five years.

According to Borderline Europe, an independent NGO defending the right to freedom of movement and supporting people affected by criminalization through legal aid and solidarity campaigns, thousands of people are currently imprisoned in Greece facing charges related to smuggling, even though they are themselves displaced persons whose stories are similar to Homayoun’s. Apart from the horrific prison conditions, the lack of medical supply and basic infrastructure, they are also faced with many issues regarding their support in their legal proceedings, such as insufficient translation, as well as a general overreliance on the witness statement offered by the police officers who arrested them, and the handling of their defense by public defenders who lack the specific knowledge to successfully argue their case. More often than not, the defendants and their legal teams are unable to locate witnesses who could corroborate their claims, since they have left Greece or fear endangering their own asylum application process by being connected to a criminal offence case. Character witnesses, such as family members or friends, are often denied being heard in court or are unable to enter the EU themselves.

Borderline Europe’s extensive research report shows that the average sentencing in these cases is 46 years, alongside an average fine of 332,000 euros. These verdicts often respond not only to the smuggling charges, but the added charge of entering the respective EU country unauthorized. Moreover, 52% of all convicted persons are serving p sentences ranging from 15 years to life, while acquittals are extremely seldom. Lastly, most defendants are unable to challenge the violations of their rights due to the inaccessibility of international court appeals hearings. Therefore, the sources describe a general climate of immunity, and a chronic persistence of the problems faced by the people involved.

These issues are all a symptom of the EU-guideline on smuggling, a policy which was passed in 2002 under the name “Facilitators Package”. While the EU decided in 2015 to intensify criminalization of border crossings in order to supposedly protect the safety of displaced persons, the increased power consigned to its border agency FRONTEX has effectively endangered people who are seeking asylum in the EU along with humanitarian rescue- and aid workers. Additionally, member states are allowed by the EU Commission to individually assess how they define “smuggling” and which factors they choose to consider. As a result, the Greek government is able to apply the most severe laws on battling smuggling among all EU member states. For example, controlling the vehicle or motorboat carrying displaced persons is enough to face years-long prison sentences. The only criterion that is regarded as sufficient for the accusation of smuggling under Greek law, is the actual or presumed transportation of individuals without official paperwork into the country. This is how Homayoun, who was merely steering the wheel of a car after being threatened with death, is now wrongfully imprisoned.

Thanks to the immense efforts of many organizations resisting these policies, awareness for the issue of criminalization can be raised. In Malta, the campaign “ElHiblu3” supported three young men and successfully hindered their deportation to Libya. In Sicily, “From Sea to Prison” is engaged in challenging the systemic criminalization of boat drivers in Italy, while “Legal Centre Lesvos” and “Borderline Europe” are advocating for defendants in Greece.

Finally, Homayoun’s daughter has been able to create a support network, for which there is further information here.

Please consider making a donation to support Homayoun’s appeal case or writing him a letter.

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