Trial of Irish aid worker accused of spying in Greece postponed

‘I’m very angry and very disappointed,’ says Sean Binder following chaotic court hearing

24 people, including Kerry-raised Seán Binder, from non-profit migrant rescue group ERCI - who operated on the Greek island of Lesbos from 2016 to 2018 - face up to 25 years in prison when their trial begins on November 18th. Video: Reuters

An Irish defendant among 24 aid workers accused of espionage in Greece has said he has been left in a legal “limbo” after their trial was postponed, prolonging an ordeal that has highlighted growing hostility towards NGOs involved in migrant solidarity work.

A three-member panel of judges on the Aegean island of Lesbos, where the alleged crimes are said to have occurred, referred the case to a court of appeals citing lack of jurisdiction. It is unclear when the higher tribunal will convene. “I’m very angry and very disappointed,” said 27-year-old law student Sean Binder after a chaotic hearing on Thursday from which the media were banned.

“This just means months of more limbo as we wait for justice. I may not have been found guilty today but effectively I’m still not free. The criminalisation of humanitarianism continues.”

The aid workers, almost all volunteers, included Greek and foreigners who had participated in search and rescue work on Lesbos, the Aegean island at the frontline of the refugee crisis. In addition to spying, they stand accused of forgery and unlawfully intercepting radio frequencies – crimes punishable by up to eight years in prison.


Mr Binder, a trained rescue diver who moved to Lesbos in 2017, also faces charges of human trafficking, money laundering and fraud. The latter is based on allegations that he had used a military Jeep with stolen number plates to enter restricted areas while working for the now defunct NGO Emergency Response Centre International (ERCI). Sarah Mardini, a competitive swimmer who had helped saved 18 fellow Syrians from drowning when their dinghy sunk off Turkey, stands accused of the same crimes while also volunteering for ERCI. She would have been tried in absentia because of a ban on her entering the country.

The pair spent 106 days in pre-trial detention, with Ms Mardini being incarcerated in Athens’s high-security Korydallos prison. Now 25, she has been granted asylum in Germany. If ultimately convicted both could face 25 years in prison. Amid calls for the charges to be dropped, supporters had taken to the streets in cities across Europe. Ahead of Thursday’s trial, the European parliament had condemned the prosecution case as the biggest criminalisation of solidarity work under way on the continent. Human rights groups called the charges “farcical”.

“Today’s decision adds to the ordeal of the defendants and compounds the violation of their human rights,” said Giorgos Kosmopoulos, Amnesty International’s senior campaigner on migration, who was monitoring the court hearing. “Sarah and Sean have already paid a huge personal price and it’s time for the charges to be dropped.”

The case is viewed as emblematic for migrant solidarity workers now under unparalleled scrutiny in Europe, with 180 people involved in NGO work across 13 countries facing criminalisation. In Athens, the centre right government of prime minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis has been heavily criticised for what rights groups have decried as its hostile rhetoric towards refugees and NGOs, accentuated by violent expulsions of asylum seekers at Greece’s land and sea borders.

‘Tough but fair’ policy

Mr Mitsotakis has angrily denied the alleged pushbacks arguing that Greek patrols “intercept” migrant boats, as EU law allows, until Turkish coastguard vessels collect them – part of a deal, he says, that Brussels and Ankara reached five years ago to stem migrant flows. But he has accepted his government pursues “a tough but fair” migrant policy as purveyor of southeast Europe’s external borders.

“Unless you manage to send a clear signal that you protect your borders, more people will try to enter illegally,” he told the TV show Good Morning Britain on Tuesday. Humanitarians have complained of mounting harassment as Fortress Europe’s frontiers have become ever more securitised and militarised. This week, Yanis Varoufakis, who heads the left-wing MeRA 25 opposition party, told the Greek parliament the charges against Mr Binder and Ms Mardini had brought the country international disrepute, saying in “less harsh times” the young activists would be rewarded for their idealism, not prosecuted.

“We did what was legally and morally right, saving people in distress at sea,” said Mr Binder. “There’s not a shred of evidence against us because we did nothing wrong. It makes no sense. Sarah was detained in prison for three months because she was deemed a flight risk and when the trial happens she is not even allowed to attend it.”

Zacharias Kesses, the criminal lawyer representing the activists, said while there was no knowing when the case would next be heard, there was room for optimism.

“The judges at a higher three-member court are more experienced,” he said. “That gives us confidence that we’ll have the chance to be heard and our arguments evaluated properly although none of this should ever have come to court in the first place.” – Guardian