Seán Binder case: Some charges against Irish aid worker dropped in Greek trial

UN human rights office says the case had a chilling effect on humanitarian organisations in the region

The judge in the trial of aid workers and volunteers – including Irish man Seán Binder – who participated in migrant rescue operations on the Greek island of Lesbos has decided to annul the less serious, misdemeanour charges brought against them.

However, the group continues to face other felony charges in a case widely criticised by human rights groups.

Irish MEP Grace O’Sullivan, who attended the trial in Lesbos, has welcomed the decision to drop some of the charges. She told RTÉ Radio’s Today with Claire Byrne that this was “a good move for Seán”.

“He will now be able to move forward,” she said.

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The defendants deny all the charges, saying they did nothing more than help rescue people whose lives were in danger. The trial of the misdemeanour charges began last Tuesday but was later adjourned until Friday.

According to Ms O’Sullivan, the prosecutor proposed an annulment of the charges due to the lack of translation of many documents connected with the case and a lack of clarity against whom specific charges will be made.

The charges had been political and were intended to instil a climate of fear among those helping refugees, she said. The whole case was misguided and highly contentious.

London-based barrister Gráinne Mellon, who is part of Mr Binder’s international legal team, said her client was facing both misdemeanour and felony charges. Following the latest development, it is unlikely that the misdemeanour charges will be pursued, she said, as the statute of limitations for them runs out in February.

“The felony charges remain outstanding,” she said. “They remain at investigation stage and a final indictment has not yet been served.” These charges, which include people smuggling, could be left hanging over her client for another four years or more, she said.

The aid workers include prominent Syrian human rights worker Sarah Mardini, a refugee and a competitive swimmer whose sister Yusra Mardini was part of the refugee swimming team at the Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro in 2016 and Tokyo in 2021.

Meanwhile, the UN human rights office on Friday called for the charges against the aid workers to be dropped and said the case had had a chilling effect on humanitarian organisations in the region.

“Trials like this are deeply concerning because they criminalise life-saving work and set a dangerous precedent,” Elizabeth Throssell, a spokeswoman for the UN’s Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, told reporters at a briefing in Geneva.

“Indeed, there has already been a chilling effect, with human rights defenders and humanitarian organisations forced to hold their human rights work in Greece and other EU countries. We reiterate our call for charges against the 24 to be dismissed.”

The aid workers were affiliated with the Emergency Response Center International, a non-profit search and rescue group operating on Lesbos from 2016 to 2018. The island was then on the frontline of Europe’s refugee crisis, with scores of asylum seekers arriving daily on its shores.

“Saving lives and providing humanitarian assistance should never be criminalised or prosecuted,” Ms Throssell said. “Such actions are, quite simply, a humanitarian and human rights imperative.” – Additional reporting: PA

Vivienne Clarke

Vivienne Clarke is a media monitor and reporter

Colm Keena

Colm Keena

Colm Keena is an Irish Times journalist. He was previously legal-affairs correspondent and public-affairs correspondent