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Humanitarians on Trial - a Crisis for European Solidarity

Sean Binder, Sarah Mardini, and Nassos Karakitsos are just three publicly known names of overall 23 Lesvos-based humanitarian aid workers facing trial in Greece. Why? Because of their voluntary engagement in a legally registered NGO, which rescued refugees at risk of drowning in the island’s coastal waters! And even though a small but symbolic win was achieved two weeks ago, there seems to be much more to come.

Court Case Against ERCI Volunteers Resumes its Proceeds

Sean Binder arrived on the Greek island of Lesvos in 2016 and joined Emergency Response Center International (ERCI), an NGO which provides humanitarian aid to refugees and engages in rescue missions. Despite multiple reports indicating that the organization cooperated with the Greek coast guard and possessed a legal status as a registered non-profit, Binder and two of his co-volunteers, Sarah Mardini and Nassos Karakitsos, found themselves being accused of multiple misdemeanor and felony charges by Greek authorities in 2018. Shortly thereafter, they were incarcerated in Athens’ largest prison Korydallos, where they spent more than three months in pre-trial confinement. Ultimately, Binder and his fellow volunteers were released on bail and, after years of waiting and hoping for the beginning of a just procedure filled with agony about the outcome, hearings resumed at a higher court after the trial was postponed multiple times on January 10th, 2023, less than two weeks ago.

The People Behind the Case

According to Sean Binder’s statements given to media outlets, the then-twenty year old young man of Irish-German citizenship moved to Lesvos driven by an intense feeling of injustice regarding the developments at the EU’s external borders and a calling to respond to what he believed to be his responsibility as a citizen of the EU. As a trained and certified rescue diver, he was able to use his skills to save the lives of people at risk of drowning at Europe’s largest death site, the Aegean Sea.

Years after first facing prosecution for his voluntary humanitarian work, he told the Irish Times that he usually receives two responses from the public after gaining infamy due to his case having gained international traction: people either denounce him as a criminal or praise him for being a hero. Interestingly, he not only rejects the accusation of being a criminal, but finds both these reactions problematic, as he insists that both characterizations imply that there is something abnormal about the act of “helping someone in distress”.

Sarah Mardini’s story, who is Binder’s co-defendant, was widely publicized through the recent release of her and her younger sister Yusra’s biopic movie “The Swimmers” on the streaming platform Netflix. The two young women fled their war-stricken home city Damascus in Syria at ages twenty and seventeen with the hopes of acquiring asylum seeker-status in Germany. However, upon reaching Berlin within the same year through what has come to be known as the “Balkan route”,

Mardini returned to her first place of arrival in Europe just shortly thereafter, in 2016. She started her second journey to Greece with a clear goal in mind: to help people who are in the same situation as she was just one year before. As in the case of Sean Binder, she too utilized her exceptional swimming skills acquired through years of competitive training, and joined the ERCI. Notably, she is reported to have saved the lives of 18 fellow Syrians during her time on Lesvos, before being forced to abruptly having to abandon her volunteering because of her arrest. Moreover, she was actively engaged as a translator for the inhabitants of the refugee camp Moria, which has been described as an “open air prison”. It is further striking that in contrast to Binder, who has been allowed to travel in- and out of Greece over the last years for his judicial proceedings, Mardini is barred from entering the country based on claims of being a “threat to national security”. This is unmistakably due to her ethnicity and Syrian nationality, highlighting the criminalization of non-European citizens by Greek authorities and governmental bodies.

The remaining 21 accused, all volunteers on Lesvos prosecuted for their participation in rescue missions, have remained largely out of the spotlight, including the more prominent figure of Nassos Karakitsos, a former maritime security officer who applied the skills he learned in the Greek Navy. The sheer numbers of individuals facing prosecution for their provision of humanitarian aid remains shocking and outrageous, even years after the news first broke. Consequently, multiple protests have taken place not only in Greece, but all over Europe, in solidarity with the unfairly criminalized volunteers. Additionally, numerous small and large humanitarian and human rights agencies have expressed strong indignation with the actions of the Greek government and judicial system, including Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, and the United Nations. Even the European parliament issued a statement in 2021 condemning the then-upcoming case proceedings in Greek courts. Yet, the EU body failed to recognize an issue that was rightfully raised by various spokespersons, namely the utterly dangerous precedent this case sets for other EU member states in their handling of aid and rescue work.

Prosecution and Court Proceedings

The story of Sean Binder’s, Sarah Mardini’s, Nassos Karakitsos’, and 20 other individuals’ prosecution and trial seems bizarre. This is only exacerbated once a closer look is taken into the exact charges: in what have been outpointed as “baseless” accusations, Greek authorities claim among other things that the former volunteers intercepted radio channels of the Greek Coast Guard and drove a Jeep with false military plates. During the first hearings, these statements have been challenged because of inconsistencies. One example which highlights the absurdity of the local authorities’ accusations is their inclusion of a felony espionage charge because of the aid workers’ usage of an “encrypted messaging service”, which proved to be no other than the highly popular mobile messaging application WhatsApp.

While these rather incredible allegations of espionage are still to be challenged in court alongside other serious felony charges of forgery, money laundering, and human trafficking, each of which provide grounds for imprisonment of more than 10 years, there has been a small but symbolically significant win. On January 13, the misdemeanor charges against the defendants were dismissed due to procedural errors on the side of the prosecution. Unfortunately, Mardini, Binder, and others have been forced to wait for more than four years to clear their names in an emotionally and financially impactful unjust criminal case due to the COVID-19 pandemic, but also court adjournments related other reasons and finally, the referral of the matter to a higher judicial institution. It seems however, like there could now be more ground for hope than before.

Hope is urgently needed, as the cases of these young humanitarian aid and rescue workers might act as a deterrent for others. Indeed, similar procedures have been observed with Italian authorities, as search and rescue workers have continuously faced criminalization since 2017. The 23 defendants on Lesvos cannot yet rest in absolute safety either. Although charges of espionage and smuggling have been dropped, they may soon have to face trial again for allegedly forming a criminal organisation. Hence, the possibility of having to suffer through another sham trial looms over them. Effectively, solidarity communities across Europe and the wider public have come to fear that the outcome of this case will prove to be crucial, maybe even a pivotal turning point in either direction.

Hopefully, Binder’s, Mardini’s, Karakitsos’ and the 20 others’ victory will be the first step towards a decriminalization of NGOs and their volunteers at the Greek borders.

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