Greece: Criminalisation of search and rescue work (joint communication)

The following is based on a communication written by the UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights Defenders and other UN experts to the Government of Greece on 16 November 2021. The Government responded to the letter on 29 December 2021. The communication remained confidential for 60 days before being made public.

BACKGROUND

Topic: criminalisation of defenders of the rights of migrants, refugees and asylum seekers, Ms. Sarah Mardini and Mr. Seán Binder.

Ms. Sarah Mardini is a defender of the human rights of migrants, refugees and asylum seekers and volunteered with ERCI, providing aid and Arabic translation to refugees arriving to the shore. Ms. Mardini is a Syrian born refugee who fled the Syrian conflict in 2015. She and her sister saved 18 passengers aboard their boat travelling cross the Aegean Sea when the engine failed in transit.

Mr. Seán Binder is a defender of the human rights of migrants, refugees and asylum seekers who volunteered with the non-governmental organisation (NGO) Emergency Response Centre International (ERCI) on the Greek island of Lesvos between autumn 2017 and summer 2018. Through ERCI he coordinated civilian search and rescue operations for refugees at sea, assisting boats in distress, and passed on information and technical knowledge to the Greek Coast Guard. He is a deep-sea diver of German nationality

UN Special Procedures mandate holders previously communicated concerns to Greece regarding alleged attacks and intimidation of defenders of the human rights of migrants, refugees and asylum seekers in GRC 2/2020. We also raised concerns about legislation that would place onerous reporting requirements and conditions on non-governmental organisations working in the field of migrant, refugee and asylum seeker rights, in communication GRC 1/2021. We thank the Government for the replies received to both of these communications; however, we regret to receive further information indicating that human rights defenders supporting migrants and refugees continue to be impeded in their work in practice.

ALLEGATIONS

On 17 February 2018, Ms. Sarah Mardini and Mr. Seán Binder were stopped by Greek police for an identity check while conducting patrolling activities in a car licensed by the ERCI on the island of Lesvos. They were reportedly found to be in possession of two unlicensed radios and the ERCI vehicle which they were driving was found to have fake military plates hidden beneath the regular license plate. Ms. Mardini and Mr. Binder were held for 48 hours and released without charges.

Police investigations reportedly continued thereafter, coming to a conclusion in July 2018. On 21 August 2018, Ms. Mardini and Mr. Binder were re-arrested and accused of “espionage”, “disclosure of State secrets”, “facilitation of illegal entry”, “membership of a criminal organisation”, “money laundering”, “fraud”, “unlawful use of radio frequencies” and “forgery”. They were held in pre-trial detention for 107 days, being released on bail on 4 December 2018.

Upon release, Ms. Mardini was subject to a re-entry ban, which prevents her from entering Greek territory even to present herself for a trial. Ms. Mardini’s lawyers have appealed against decision, requesting that she be allowed to attend her trial. On 12 November 2021, the re-entry ban against Ms. Mardini was upheld.

Reportedly, there are several irregularities in the justification for the charges against Mr. Binder and Ms. Mardini, including that they were not in Lesvos at the time of some of the alleged incidents. In addition, other charges brought against them appear to be based on the legitimate activities of search and rescue organisations, which is in line with international maritime and international law. For example, their legal activities to help boats in distress allegedly formed the basis of the charge of “facilitating illegal entry”. The alleged administrative offenses of ERCI, such as lack of valid radio licenses, were considered to be serious criminal activities, such as espionage, by Ms. Mardini and Mr. Binder, of which there is no evidence of them committing. With regards to the military plates found behind the regular plates, the prosecution reportedly argues that the human rights defenders intentionally placed them there to allow them to gain access to restricted military areas of the beach. However, the vehicle in question reportedly had two large emblems on both sides, which clearly identifying the car with the NGO.

On 18 November 2021, a hearing will be held for the two human rights defenders on the misdemeanours of “espionage”, “disclosure of State secrets”, “unlawful use of radio frequencies” and “forgery”. The prosecution has not concluded its investigation into the remaining felonies. If convicted on all charges, the human rights defenders could face up to 25 years in prison. A lengthy delay of over two years has already passed since the arrest and accusation of Ms. Mardini and Mr. Binder on these charges.

Several other defenders of the human rights of migrants, refugees and asylum seekers have also reportedly ceased or severely reduced their activities due to difficulty registering their non-governmental organisation and/or fear of retaliation. There are currently no active search and rescue boats on the island of Lesvos.

CONCERNS

In the communication we expressed our deep concern regarding the criminal proceedings against Mr. Binder and Ms. Mardini, which we fear could amount to the criminalisation of their work protecting the right to life at sea and providing vital aid to migrants and refugees. Of particular concern are allegations of reported irregularities in the charges against Ms. Mardini and Mr. Binder and the re-entry ban against Ms. Mardini, which may deprive her of her right to a fair trial. We are additionally concerned by charges that appear to conflate search and rescue operations with “facilitating illegal entry”, a serious felony in Greek law. We are also concerned by the prolonged pre-trial detention of the defenders and the pace of the investigation into the crimes for which they are charged. We fear this may deter others from carrying out legitimate human rights work until a verdict is reached, for fear of similar proceedings against them.

In this regard, we fear the charges brought against Ms. Mardini and Mr. Binder to be representative of the shrinking space in Greece for those wishing to take peaceful action to ensure respect for the rights of migrants and refugees, including at sea. If found to be guilty, we are profoundly concerned for the precedent this would set to target other human rights defenders who currently, or in the past, have engaged in lifesaving human rights work, often at great personal risk. Taken with Joint Ministerial Decision 10616/2020 and Law 4686/2020 (see GRC 1/2021), which allegedly imposed onerous legal requirements and conditions on the registration of NGOs working in the field of migrant and refugee rights, we are concerned that there will be little remaining space for human rights defenders to carry out their legitimate work on the human rights of migrants and refugees, and to provide assistance to trafficked persons.

This is a shorter version of the original communication.

Read the full communication Read the Govenment's response

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