Legality of Greek case against Irish volunteer questioned by law firm

Law firm says case against Sean Binder breaches international human rights law

The legality of a criminal case being brought by Greek authorities against a young search and rescue volunteer who grew up in Ireland has been questioned by a UK-based law firm.

Greek authorities have been urged to review the criminal case being brought by them against 27-year-old Seán Binder, a trained maritime search and rescuer, because it breaches international human rights law, according to a legal opinion commissioned by a UK-based law firm.

Amnesty International is supporting Mr Binder in the case.

A native of Germany who grew up in Ireland and graduated from Dublin's Trinity College and the London School of Economics, Mr Binder was arrested on August 21st 2018 alongside other volunteers and charged with criminal offences connected to search and rescue work carried out by him as a volunteer for a humanitarian NGO in Lesbos, Greece.


Following his arrest, he was detained in a Greek prison for a total of 106 days.

He was charged with offences including formation and membership of a criminal organisation, facilitation of illegal entry, infringement of state secrets, possession of a radio without a licence, money laundering, espionage and forgery. If convicted, he could face up to 25 years in prison.

He is due to go on trial later this week for some of the less serious “misdemeanour” charges but a trial date has yet to be set for the more serious criminal charges advanced against him.

The charges relate to a period in 2017 and 2018 when he was volunteering on search and rescue missions for Emergency Response Centre International (ERCI), a Greek not-for profit organisation that provided emergency responses and humanitarian aid in Lesbos.

UK-based law firm Leigh Day has commissioned a legal opinion on the legality in international law of his arrest, pre-trial detention and proposed trial for alleged offences committed while volunteering on search and rescue missions for ERCI.

Provided by Edward Fitzgerald QC of Doughty Street Chambers, and Gráinne Mellon, of Garden Court Chambers, the opinion expresses "serious concerns as to the basic compliance with international human rights law in this case".

The authors consider a series of breaches of Mr Binder’s fundamental rights have already occurred and his proposed trial on Thursday, November 18th, “risks further serious violations of international human rights principles”.

“We call on the Greek authorities to urgently review the conduct of this criminal trial- in both substantive and procedural terms- and to consider whether or not it can or should proceed,” it says.

“A proper application of the duty to provide assistance- and the exemption for humanitarian work- in international law should in our view serve to protect him from prosecution for this work.”

In a statement, Mr Binder said: “We are not criminals, neither are we heroes, providing assistance to people in distress is necessary - nobody should be abandoned to drown.”

“My actions were guided by the duties enshrined in international maritime law and the European Convention on Human Rights. Now Greece should be guided by Europe’s commitment not to criminalise humanitarian activity and its obligations under International Human Rights Law, including the ECHR.”

Tessa Gregory, a partner at Leigh Day, said: "On the basis of the evidence we have seen, we believe that there have been serious breaches of Seán's human rights by the Greek authorities in relation to his detention, the charges brought against him and the delays in hearing his case in court."

“Seán’s case is important as it shows what appears to be a disturbing trend towards criminalising human rights defenders who are working for recognised NGOs seeking to help refugees.”

Mary Carolan

Mary Carolan

Mary Carolan is the Legal Affairs Correspondent of the Irish Times