Humanitarians acquitted on search and rescue in the Aegean

A first victory! The day has come when the 16 rescuers from the ERCI case and others were acquitted of misdemeanors
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Signs in solidarity of the humanitarians on trial were tied to a fence outside the courthouse in Mytilene

On Thursday, 1 February 2024, the trial of the case of the 16 members of humanitarian search and rescue organizations was completed – after 4 hearings – at the Court of Appeal of Mytilene. As we documented in a January 2023 article, the procedure itself showed signs of retaliation and absurdity. The purpose of the state and the Greek authorities carrying through with the case was to criminalize search and rescue and silence witnesses, covering up what is really happening at sea.

The procedure

There were 16 defendants who were finally tried (out of the original 24), prosecuted on the charge of “common and repeated espionage” and three of them on the charge of “providing essential information for the purpose of facilitating a criminal organisation, the object of which is the commission of several felonious acts.”  Seven prosecution witnesses were called, but only four attended the trial. It is important to note that the two main prosecution witnesses, the then Central Harbour Master and the person in charge of coordinating the rescue teams, did not come to the trial to testify on any of the days, despite the insistence of the defence lawyers. Three of the four remaining witnesses, two police officers and a Hellenic Coast Guard officer, did not testify anything relevant to support the prosecution, nor did they want to highlight the huge shortcomings of the indictment, constantly stressing that they were incompetent to answer questions, either from the court or from the defense lawyers. The fourth witness for the prosecution was the Commander of Mytilene’s Sub-Directorate of Security, who was also the one who drafted the preliminary report. Throughout his testimony, which lasted around two hours, he tried to argue and substantiate the results of his agency’s investigation, regarding open and closed channels on communications, espionage and sharing state secrets through the WhatsApp conversations, but the shortcomings were evident and the accusations did not stand. The proceedings continued with the examination of defense witnesses and the plea of the defendants, where it became almost immediately apparent that the actions of these people as members of humanitarian organizations were not at all illegal. They were all following the cooperation and coordination protocols drawn up by UNHCR and the Port Authorities and their actions were simply supporting and assisting in an uncontrolled ‘crisis’ that existed at the time on the island of Lesvos. All of the defendants were acquitted of the charges, bringing them relief after six years of waiting while also confirming the underlying reasons behind the creation of this case in 2018.

Reflection

The result of this trial is a great confirmation and a great victory for the people accused and all those who have followed the case and stood in solidarity with them. Let’s not forget that it is a very good result to use in the felony court, if and when it happens. Since 2016, Greek authorities have been working to eliminate any possible witnesses on the coast to report on what is happening and unfortunately, they have mostly succeeded in doing that. Pushbacks are still occurring and migrants who have been pushed back two or three times by the Greek authorities are forced to choose increasingly dangerous routes to be able to reach Europe. Hundreds of people leaving from North Africa are forced into boats in very poor conditions, and many times drown in the Central Mediterranean (see the Pylos Shipwreck, which happened on June 14, 2023).

Nowadays, the criminalisation of migration and search and rescue and solidarity is a common practice undertaken by all EU countries, especially those at the borders. Every day these states attack and weaken anyone who stands with migrants, but our response is to continue the work. We won’t back down!

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