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Greek court rejects charges against aid workers

demonstration in solidarity with sean binder and sarah mardini, aid workers on trial over refugee rescues in athens.
Demonstration by Amnesty International activists in solidarity with Sean Binder and Sarah Mardini, aid workers on trial over refugee rescues, outside the parliament building, in Athens, Greece, 2021

A Greek court dismissed espionage charges on Friday against a group of humanitarian workers on trial in Greece and ordered a prosecutor to refile the case, citing flaws in the litigation process, a defense lawyer and local media said.

The aid workers, some of them foreigners and including a Syrian refugee, were affiliated with Emergency Response Centre International, a nonprofit search-and-rescue group operating on Lesbos from 2016 to 2018. The island was then on the frontline of Europe’s refugee crisis, with scores of asylum seekers arriving daily on its shores, mainly from neighboring Turkey.

Greek authorities have been criticized by humanitarian organisations for going to great lengths, including such legal action, to deter volunteers from helping asylum seekers at land and sea borders.

The defendants have denied the misdemeanor charges against them, which include espionage and forgery.

In Friday’s hearing on Lesbos the court upheld the defendants’ objections, ruling that the espionage charges were vague and that prosecution documents were not translated for the foreign defendants, the lawyer said.

A prosecutor has to refile the case but this might not be possible as the charges would fall under a statute of limitations, essentially meaning that the charges have collapsed, the lawyer added.

The trial began on Lesbos in November 2021 and was immediately adjourned as the case was referred to a different court. Proceedings resumed this week.

The United Nations human rights office said on Friday the case had had a chilling effect on humanitarian organizations in the region and called for the charges to be dropped.

“Trials like this are deeply concerning because they criminalize lifesaving work and set a dangerous precedent,” Elizabeth Throssell, a spokesperson for the UN’s Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, told reporters at a briefing in Geneva.

“Saving lives and providing humanitarian assistance should never be criminalized or prosecuted,” Throssell said. “Such actions are, quite simply, a humanitarian and human rights imperative.”

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