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  • 6 min read
  • Published: 4th January 2023

On Trial for Saving Lives: Drop the Charges Against Humanitarians

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Seán Binder, Sara Mardini and Nassos Karakitsos will go on trial next Tuesday 10th January 2023 on the Greek island of Lesvos where they are charged with serious crimes including forgery, trafficking and espionage. They were on Lesvos to save lives but now face 25 years in prison. “If they are found guilty it could amount to criminalisation of search and rescue work,” said Mary Lawlor, UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders.

Seán grew up on the south coast of Ireland where he trained in search and rescue. Sara was a professional swimmer and is also trained in search and rescue. They each decided to use their skills and experience to join humanitarian efforts on Lesvos island where people fleeing to Europe were at risk of drowning. On Lesvos, they worked with Emergency Response Center International (ERCI), a registered NGO conducting rescue missions, giving people essentials like blankets and accompanying people in solidarity on their arrival in Europe. The organisation regularly cooperated with Greek authorities on missions in Greek waters and on Lesvos , making it all the more shocking when Sara and Seán were both arrested in August 2018 and accused of being part of a criminal organisation.

They were held in pre-trial detention for 106 days before being released on bail in December 2018. Four years later the trial is still hanging over them.

"All of these errors suggest that our right to a fair trial is being undermined. That’s why I'm here asking for respect of our rights and indeed respect for the rule of law ”
— Seán Binder December 2022

Legal experts and human rights organisations all around Europe have sounded the alarm about this trial. Procedural flaws include: factual errors including claims that some of the accused participated in rescue missions on dates when they were not actually in Greece, indictments were not translated into a language the accused could understand, indictments were issued without clearly stating what offences individuals were charged with, and Sara Mardini was not allowed to enter Greece to be present at her own trial in 2021 although the right to be present at one’s own trial is protected in international ,European and Greek law.

After analysing the case, Human Rights watch called the accusations “baseless” and called on Greek judicial authorities to drop the charges.  

“Dragging the case on for year on year so that prosecution is effectively a form of persecution.”
— Seán Binder, December 2022

If one thinks back to August 2018, and all the things that have happened in the world since then it is shocking to imagine passing this length of time with the possibility of imprisonment hanging over one’s head. The first trial hearing was in November 2021, but it brought no closure or certainty as it was adjourned because the prosecution had filed the case before the wrong court, which held that it was not competent to try the case. The case was referred to the Appeals Court of the Northern Aegean, also on Lesvos and it is there that the trial begins on Tuesday 10th January 2023. But even then only one portion of the charges will be addressed. The charges have been broken into misdemeanour and felony charges and the latter, the more serious charges that carry a longer sentence, are not the ones for which they will be tried in January. It is unacceptable for these humanitarians to be left with such serious charges hanging over them and all charges should be dropped.

“A guilty verdict, which could put them in prison for 25 years, would set a dangerous precedent of making criminals of people who support the rights of migrants and refugees across Greece and the European Union. It would lead to more deaths at sea and could see others put behind bars for human rights work.”
— Mary Lawlor, UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders

Unfortunately, cases like this are not isolated, nor are they even uncommon nor restricted to Greece.

Oxfam and our partners the Greek Council for Refugees have raised concerns that the criminalisation of refugees and those who support them is part of a broader policy of deterrence. Last year a number of cases were acquitted in Greek courts showing the criminalisation to be unlawful but the consequences on the refugees’ personal and family life were horrendous.

Chios: acquittal of a young Syrian man accused of providing water and food to refugees

On 4 June 2022, a 23 year old Syrian man was arrested for providing water and food to 11 newly arrived asylum seekers who had landed on the coast of Chios. The young man was accused of “facilitating the illegal residence of third-country nationals in Greek territory and complicating the investigations by the Greek authorities”. On 16 June 2022, the Criminal Court of Chios acquitted the man.

Samos: acquittal of father over son’s death on boat journey to Greece

In November 2020, a boat carrying 24 people began to sink as it approached the Greek island of Samos. The Greek coast guard were called but did not arrive until the next morning. Tragically, a six year old child drowned. His father, a 26 year old who had fled Afghanistan, was then charged with endangering his child’s life and faced 10 years in prison. On 18 May 2022, the Criminal Court of Samos acquitted the father.


Seán has said that as bad as it was to have been in pre-trial detention for over 100 days “it isn’t as bad as some of the experiences that others have had who are in prison and are not unfortunately listened to”. Humanitarians doing rescue work are criminalised, people arriving on boats are criminalised, lawyers assisting asylum seekers are criminalised. The UN special rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders, Mary Lawlor, carried out an official country visit to Greece in June 2022 and reported that human rights defenders face criminalisation, smear campaigns and live in fear because of “their legitimate, peaceful work for the rights of refugees, asylum seekers and migrants.”

At stake in this case is the freedom and life chances of people who came to Greece to help and never dreamed that for this act they could face prison. At stake in this case is the rule of law within the EU, the right to cross a border looking for refuge (The EU Charter of Fundamental Rights is legally binding on all EU member states and Article 18 guarantees the right to ask for asylum), the future of search and rescue and humanitarianism in Europe. 

Join us to show solidarity with the humanitarians – Monday 9th at 6.30pm.

Together we will hear from activists and advocates on the ground in Greece, compile messages of solidarity and participate in a photo mosaic of solidarity demanding the charges be dropped. 

Join us on zoom here

This short but very important event is being organised by Oxfam Ireland and Comhlámh. Come show your support and send a message of solidarity to humanitarians: Join us on zoom: https://us06web.zoom.us/j/89494316916



You can send a message of support to Seán here: 


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