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Aid workers get initial victory in trial in Lesvos, Greece

Espionage charges dismissed due to "procedural reasons"

16 January, 12:15

    (ANSAmed) - ATHENS, 16 GEN - A group of 24 aid workers and volunteers who participated in migrant rescue operations on the Greek island of Lesvos, won a significant battle in their trial after espionage charges against them were dismissed by the court due to "procedural reasons".

    The defendants, which includes Sarah Mardini, a 25-year-old Syrian refugee, and Seán Binder, a 27-year-old German national, are not out of the woods yet, however, as they also face more serious criminal charges of facilitating illegal entry of migrants, participation in a criminal organization and fraud, which remain pending amid an ongoing investigation.

    The trial, which was initially set to go ahead in 2021 but was postponed twice previously over procedural issues, started on Friday. The smuggling-related case has been widely criticized by human rights groups.

    And on Friday the trial concluded at 2pm local time, with the Lesvos court largely accepting the objections of the defendants' lawyers on procedural grounds and dismissed the prosecution's indictment as invalid by the North Aegean Criminal Court of Appeal.

    As a result, there will be no decision on the merits of the case. The court's ruling means that the trial will not continue until the indictment is corrected. Local media reported that this is unlikely to happen now.

    Although there was much relief outside the court after the ruling, the 24 defendants remain anxious about the criminal prosecution, the investigative process of which has not been completed almost five years down the line.

    "We're not going to celebrate the obvious," said Zacharias Keses, Mardini's and Binder's defense attorney. He also represents Charis Petsikos and Cleo Papapantolean. Despite this, the fact that the court has "recognized the mistakes made during the subpoena and the referral is very important as a message to the inquiry process", added Keses.

    Reacting to the news, Nils Muižnieks, director of Amnesty International's European Regional Office, said: "Today's decision offers authorities a new opportunity to end this ordeal and right their own wrongs by dropping all charges, including the more serious felony charges still pending. The procedural errors cited by the court, including the failure to provide a translation, only compound the absurdity of the Greek authorities targeting people who defended the rights of migrants and refugees.

    We strongly urge the Greek authorities once again to drop all charges and allow Sarah and Seán to return to their lives. The criminalization of these brave human rights defenders just because they helped refugees and migrants in need shows the callous attitude of Greece and Europe towards people seeking safety at their borders." The indictment will now be sent back to the prosecution. For the 24 defendants, the remaining misdemeanor charges are set to expire in February 2023, while the previously mentioned felony charges against the aid workers, including facilitating illegal entry, participation in a criminal organization and fraud, remain pending.

    The UN's Refugee Agency (UNHCR) added to Amnesty International's comments with a statement of their own in support of the 24 defendants.

    "NGOs and volunteers acting in line with the law provide additional and much-needed support when needs overcome capacity.

    Those performing rescue operations or providing assistance in good faith should not be penalized for doing so. Saving lives at sea and providing humanitarian assistance is a moral and humanitarian imperative; it is one of the most basic obligations of humanity," said the UNHCR statement via Twitter. (ANSAmed).

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