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Defendant Sean Binder from Germany answers journalists' questions outside the court of Mytilene on the island of Lesbos on November 18, 2021.

Defendant Sean Binder from Germany answers journalists' questions outside the court of Mytilene on the island of Lesbos on November 18, 2021. The trial of two dozen humanitarian activists who helped migrants reach Greece three years ago was adjourned on November 18, 2021 shortly after opening and moved to an appeals court. The activists, who are accused of espionage, forgery, and assisting a criminal organization, helped migrants reach the island of Lesbos after crossing the Aegean. (Photo: Manolis Lagoutaris/AFP via Getty Images)

'Drop the Charges': Greece Delays Trial of Humanitarians Who Aided Refugees at Sea

"The criminalization of humanitarianism continues."

Andrea Germanos

Human rights defenders expressed renewed demands on Thursday for charges to be dropped against a group of humanitarian activists now facing trial in Greece for aiding refugees at sea off the country's coast.

"All we have done is assist people seeking safety at a time of need."

Two dozen humanitarian workers faced trial in Lesbos, Greece related to their efforts from 2016 to 2018 with the Emergency Response Center International (ERCI). Two of those workers are search and rescue volunteers Sarah Mardini and Seán Binder, who face up to 25 years in prison.

While the trial began Thursday, it was almost immediately suspended. The court's decision to adjourn, said 27-year-old Binder, a diver and German national, "is further proof of the absurdity of this case."

"All we have done is assist people seeking safety at a time of need," he said in a statement. "After today's decision, our lives are once again left on hold."

Twenty-five-year-old Mardini is a Syrian refugee who drew international praise in 2015 when she, along with her sister—both trained swimmers—kept afloat for hours and brought to safety a crowded dinghy of refugees as it took the perilous Mediterranean route from Turkey to Lesbos. Now in Germany where she was granted asylum, Mardini was unable to be at the proceedings because Greece imposed a travel ban on her.

Both Mardini and Binder were arrested in 2018 and spent over 100 days in pre-trial detention before being released on bail that year.

Thursday's trial focused on misdemeanor charges that can carry a sentence of up to 8 years. The pair face separate charges including people smuggling, fraud, membership of a criminal organization, and money laundering, which could lead to a 25-year sentence.

"The law obliges us to help people in distress at sea," Binder said in a statement ahead of the trial. "The real victims of European migration policies are the refugees and migrants forced to risk their lives to reach 'Fortress Europe.'"

According to BBC News:

The case was suspended after the judge ruled that the court was not competent to hear the case.

It will now be heard by an appeals court, because one of the defendants is a lawyer and the local court on the island of Lesbos doesn't have the jurisdiction to try lawyers...

Prosecutors allege that the aid workers, who were affiliated with a search and rescue group, monitored the Greek Coast Guard's radio channels and used a vehicle with a fake military licence plate to enter restricted areas on Lesbos.

A letter for support for the activists signed by 49 human rights organizations including Oxfam and Lesvos Solidarity and sent earlier this month to Greek and European authories said the trial "seeks to criminalize saving lives and solidarity" and warned that "if found guilty, their case could set a worrying precedent with adverse implications for humanitarian assistance far beyond Greece."

Support for the group has also come from lawmakers like Irish politician Grace O'Sullivan, a Member of the European Parliament, who tweeted Thursday, "I am beyond disappointed that the trial of Seán Binder and other humanitarian workers trying to save lives at sea has been delayed further and moved to a higher court."

"The only way justice will be seen here," she said, "is to #DropTheCharges."

Giorgos Kosmopoulos, senior campaigner on migration for Amnesty International, concurred.

"These trumped-up charges are farcical and should never have resulted in Sarah and Seán appearing in court," he said.

"Today's adjournment," Kosmopoulos continued, "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."

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