Greece’s authorities are continuing their relentless targeting of search and rescue volunteers who have saved numerous refugees’ lives. The state is seeking to appeal charges against activists, which were dropped due to the prosecution’s incompetence.
Saving refugees’ lives: a criminal offence in Greece
The prosecution of Sara Mardini from Syria, Seán Binder from Ireland, and Nassos Karakitsos from Greece, along with 21 others, has hit world headlines over the past five years. The rescuers and first responders had been set to stand trial on the Greek island of Lesbos in January for saving the lives of thousands of refugees and asylum seekers between 2016 and 2018. They were facing up to 25 years each in prison if found guilty. Then on 9 February, the activists thought they had cause for celebration after the Greek court dropped misdemeanour charges against them. The trial was dismissed because of:
the lack of translations [for defendants] and the lack of clarity around espionage laws. In court, the prosecution, the defence, and the judge felt that these procedural errors were significant enough that the misdemeanours case had to be dismissed.
But on 26 May, in a twisted turn of events the prosecution will make an appeal in the Greek Supreme Court to overturn the decision to drop the misdemeanour charges. The defendants said:
Now, another lawyer argues that there was no need to provide translation to the defendants(?!), and that the laws regarding espionage are clear enough. If the Supreme Court accepts the appeal, then we will return to the court of appeal for a new trial on the misdemeanours. The statute of limitations will be extended for up to three years to facilitate this. It will most likely take the Supreme Court between three and six months to make a decision.
The Greek prosecution had five whole years to provide defendants with translated documents, and failed to do so. The activists continued:
For five years, we waited for clear, translated indictments, and the prosecution did not issue them. For five years, we waited for clarity on how we might be tried for espionage, without prior being found guilty of membership in a criminal organisation, and it was not given.
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The defendants have appeared in court twice on the misdemeanour charges, once in January, and previously in November 2021. In both instances, the prosecution made so many errors that the case had to be dismissed.
‘This is not law; this is persecution’
It is clear that by extending the statute of limitations – that is, the maximum amount of time that the prosecution can take to prosecute someone – that the Greek state is relentlessly targeting the activists. The defendants argued “this is not law; this is persecution”.
On top of the misdemeanour charges, the defendants are also facing separate felony charges. If found guilty of ‘facilitating illegal entry of asylum seekers’, they could each face 20 years in prison. An individual can, in theory, face up to ten years in Greek prison for each person that is ‘facilitated’ entry onto Greek shores. The activists helped thousands of refugees, crossing by dinghy from Turkey to Lesbos between 2016 and 2018, to safety. But the maximum time in prison is 20 years for felony.
The statute of limitations for the felony charges means that the prosecution has until 2038 – that is, another 15 years – to prosecute the defendants. Their lives are in limbo as the Greek authorities get away with treating them with nearly as little respect as they do the refugees arriving by boat on their shores.
Greece downgraded in annual report on fundamental freedoms
Greece’s repression of search and rescue volunteers hasn’t gone unnoticed by human rights organisations. CIVICUS, which monitors the state of civic freedoms globally, recently downgraded Greece in its People Power Under Attack report.
The organisation said:
From legal harassment to deregistrations, the Greek government continues to target civil society organisations and activists working to advance the rights of refugees and asylum seekers.
The Ministry of Migration and Asylum has taken no measures to bring the 2020 law on registration of NGOs working with refugees and migrants in line with international human rights standards. In addition, a 2021 law continues to criminalise rescue operations, particularly sea search and rescue operations, forcing some CSOs to terminate their operations out of fear of being prosecuted…
As the authorities continue to criminalise those showing solidarity with refugee’s and asylum seekers, illegal pushbacks continue.
In 2022, an average of six people drowned every day in the Mediterranean. Moreover, the UN has said that already in 2023 at least 441 refugees have already died. It said many of these deaths were due to slow state-led rescues. So, it is essential that we all stand with Sarah, Seán, Nassos and others facing trial. Saving lives should be a duty, not a crime.
Featured image via Free Humanitarians
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